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Cyrus Biotech and CRISPR gene pioneers team up

Feng Zhang
MIT researcher Feng Zhang will be the principal investigator for the Broad Institute’s collaboration with Cyrus Biotechnology. (HHMI Photo)

Seattle-based Cyrus Biotechnology says it’ll collaborate with the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard on ways to optimize CRISPR gene-editing techniques for use in developing novel human therapeutics.

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Scientists publish a ‘parts list’ for the brain

Rebecca Hodge with brain
Rebecca Hodge, a senior scientist at the Allen Institute for Brain Science and one of the principal authors of a research study outlining a “parts list” for mouse brains and human brains, holds a section of postmortem human brain that was used in the study. (Allen Institute Photo)

A study led by researchers at Seattle’s Allen Institute for Brain Science lays out a “parts list” for the brain, including a detailed look at the differences between the parts for human brains and mouse brains.

They say the genetic results, published today in the journal Nature, suggest that relying on mice to study how the brains of men and women work could lead neuroscientists down blind alleys.

“The answer may be that you have to go to species that are more similar to humans,” Ed Lein, an investigator at the Allen Institute who’s also affiliated with the University of Washington, told GeekWire.

It’s not that the basic parts list is all that different: The researchers found that most of the 75 different cell types identified in the human brain, based on genetic makeup, are found in the mouse brain as well.

That commonality applies even to cells that the scientists had previously thought might be uniquely human, such as the “rosehip neurons” discovered last year.

But there are significant differences in the way those genes are expressed — differences that have developed over 75 million years of evolution. “The genes themselves haven’t really changed, but their regulation can change a lot,” Lein said.

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Year in Science: Genetic hopes and fears come true

He Xiankui
Chinese researcher He Jiankui discusses his lab’s effort to produce babies whose genes have been altered to protect them from future HIV infection. (The He Lab via YouTube)

In science, it was the best of times, and the worst of times.

2018 was a year when researchers focused in on ways to head off disease by reprogramming a patient’s own cells, but also crossed what many thought were ethical red lines in genetic experimentation. It was the first year in which women won a share of the Nobel Prize for physics as well as for chemistry, but also a year when the #MeToo issue came to the fore in the science community.

And it was the year that marked the passing of British physicist Stephen Hawking, who was arguably the world’s best-known living scientist.

As I look back at 2018, I’m seeing some stories that I missed but ended up featuring prominently in other folks’ year-end recaps. So, to even things out, my top-ten list focuses on five developments that we featured in the course of the last 12 months, and five more that didn’t get much play at the time.

Feel free to use the comment section to cast write-in ballots for the year’s science highlights and low lights. (For example, the sad tale of Tahlequah and the Southern Resident orca population tops The Seattle Times’ year-end list).

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Human gene-editing experiment put on hold

He Jiankui
Chinese researcher He Jiankui addresses the Second International Summit on Human Genome Editing in Hong Kong. (National Academies via Twitter)

The Chinese researcher behind a controversial experiment to produce gene-edited children took the stage at a Hong Kong conference to explain his work, and acknowledged that the international outcry has brought a halt to the experiment.

“The clinical trial was paused due to the current situation,” He Jiankui, a biomedical researcher at the Southern University of Science and Technology in Shenzhen, said today at the Second International Summit on Human Genome Editing.

The university says He (pronounced “Heh”) has been on unpaid leave since January, and today Chinese news outlets reported that his lab on campus has been shut down and sealed off for investigation.

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Reports of gene-edited babies spawn investigations

CRISPR mechanism
CRISPR-Cas9 technology uses “molecular scissors” to cut and splice DNA. (UC-Berkeley Graphic)

Multiple investigations are being sought in the wake of reports that a Chinese laboratory facilitated the birth of twin girls whose genes had been edited to protect them against the HIV virus that causes AIDS.

The first-of-its-kind experiment, which took advantage of the CRISPR gene-editing technique, came to light in reports published late Sunday by MIT Technology Review and The Associated Press. The researcher in charge of the project, He Jiankui of the Southern University of Science and Technology in Shenzhen, also published a series of videos explaining the gene-editing project.

There has been no outside confirmation of He’s claims, but geneticists and health policymakers say such claims raise grave ethical issues — including the prospect of creating designer babies, enhancing traits and even introducing exotic new traits.

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First gene-edited babies reportedly born in China

He Jiankui
Chinese researcher He Jiankui discusses his lab’s effort to produce babies whose genes have been altered to protect them from future HIV infection. (The He Lab via YouTube)

A Chinese researcher says his lab facilitated the first birth of gene-edited children — twin girls who are said to possess genetic alterations that could protect them from HIV, the virus that causes AIDS.

“Two beautiful little Chinese girls, named Lulu and Nana, came crying into this world as healthy as any other babies a few weeks ago. The girls are home now,” He Jiankui, a researcher at the Southern University of Science and Technology in Shenzhen, said in a YouTube video.

If confirmed, the report is certain to bring the ethical issues surrounding human genetic engineering into sharp focus, and could lead either to rapid developments in the technology or regulatory limits.

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Wanted: A million genomes for precision medicine

Eric Dishman
Eric Dishman, director of the All of Us Research Program at the National Institutes of Health, meets the press at the University of Washington. (GeekWire Photo / Alan Boyle)

Eric Dishman is a living, breathing advertisement for the ambitious experiment he’s in charge of, the National Institutes of Health’s “All of Us” drive to collect and analyze the genomes of a million Americans.

If it weren’t for the fact that he had his genome sequenced seven years ago, he probably would not be living and breathing.

Back then, he was struggling with a rare form of kidney cancer that had put him through decades’ worth of chemotherapy, radiation and misery. And the end was near.

“I was probably going to die, and I was literally on my last business trip to both Boston and San Diego, where a lot of the early genomics work was being done,” Dishman, a former Intel executive, recalled today during a sit-down with journalists at the University of Washington.

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Unscrambling the tale of an astronaut’s genes

Mark and Scott Kelly
Retired astronauts Mark Kelly and Scott Kelly are still identical twins. (NASA Photo / Robert Markowitz)

My Twitter feed was buzzing this week with reports that Scott Kelly’s genes were knocked permanently out of phase because he spent a year in space.

Some of the reports made it sound as if Scott Kelly was no longer the identical twin of retired astronaut Mark Kelly, who participated in the genetic study down on Earth.

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DNA sequencer in space solves a mystery

Peggy Whitson with DNA secquencer
NASA astronaut Peggy Whitson performed the Genes in Space-3 investigation on the International Space Station using devices that amplify and sequence microbial DNA samples. (NASA Photo)

NASA isn’t saying it’s aliens — but the space agency is touting its ability to identify organisms using the first DNA sequencer in orbit.

Oxford Nanopore Technologies’ palm-sized MiniON sequencer was sent up to the International Space Station last year, and it’s now been paired up with a DNA replicator that’s able to amplify genetic samples through a process known as polymerase chain reaction, or PCR.

Together, the devices were employed to check bacterial samples as part of an experimental campaign called Genes in Space-3.

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Semi-synthetic bacteria make ‘alien’ protein

Semi-synthetic bacteria
Bacteria express a green fluorescent protein that’s produced from DNA instructions with unnatural chemical “letters” added. (Scripps Research Institute Photo / Bill Klosses)

Researchers have reached a new milestone in their effort to expand the genetic alphabet of life by designing a strain of E. coli bacteria that creates proteins unlike anything cells can produce naturally.

The technique, detailed in a paper published today in the journal Nature, could lead to the production of totally new types of protein-based medicines, plastics and biofuels.

It could also stretch the definition of natural vs. artificial life.

“I would not call this a new lifeform — but it’s the closest thing anyone has ever made,” study leader Floyd Romesberg, a biochemist at the Scripps Research Institute, said in a news release.

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