Science Policy For All

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Science Policy Around the Web – August 4, 2017

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By: Emily Petrus, PhD

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source: pixabay

CTE Research

National Football League Backs out of Funding Brain Research

A new study released this week added more fuel to the fire surrounding the health problems associated with playing contact sports, most notably American football. The study found signs of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) in the brains of 110 out of 111 former National Football League (NFL) players. Repetitive head trauma is thought to cause CTE, which can result in behavioral and mood disorders and cognitive impairment. Football players donated their brains to the Concussion Legacy Foundation so that scientists could evaluate the impact of playing contact sports on their brains. Currently CTE is only diagnosed post-mortem, so developing effective diagnoses and treatments for living patients would benefit NFL players, soldiers and others at risk of head trauma.

Advancing the science to benefit these groups in theory should serve in the NFL’s interest, however the initial damaging reports demonstrating the dangers their players face didn’t sit well. In 2012 the NFL pledged $30 million to the National Institutes of Health (NIH) for brain research, however the partnership is set to expire this year with about half the money unspent. A 2016 New York Times article revealed some unsettling interactions between the NFL and NIH, when a congressional study found that the NFL tried to direct their funding away from research performed by certain scientists. The NIH was set to award a $17 million grant to Dr. Robert Stern at Boston University to study the link between repeated concussions and CTE, however representatives from the NFL attempted to discredit Dr. Stern’s work. The NIH chose to fund Dr. Stern’s highly ranked proposal, and reserve the NFL’s money for future research. It seems now that future research funded by the NFL and distributed by the NIH is unlikely to happen.

Eliminating conflicts of interest is important for research to remain unbiased and evidence based. Concussion research conducted by the NFL or clinical trials performed by pharmaceutical companies can produce bias results. There is a need for the NIH and FDA to act as fair and unbiased grant reviewers and funding distributors. Even among players at the NFL there is a spectrum of how people feel about the dangers of playing football, best exemplified by the following quotes:

“We live and breathe it and this is what we’re so passionate about. Literally, I would — if I had a perfect place to die, I would die on the field.” – Jamal Adams Jet’s Rookie

“I hope All these young cats that are willing to die for the game of football find a higher purpose in life. Look football is great but I ain’t dying for this sh*t. Lol.” – Martellus Bennett Green Bay Packers Tight End (Twitter)

(Laurel Wamsley, NPR)

 

Human Genetic Engineering

No Super-Babies Yet

The United States has had a long history with avoiding research using stem cells. Since in vitro fertilization (IVF) became possible in the 1970’s we have been debating the ethics of using human stem cells and embryos for research. During George Bush’s tenure as president, stem cell research was explicitly un-fundable with public tax dollars (i.e. from NIH). As scientists found new ways to create stem cells without fetal tissue and Barack Obama’s presidency began, the US finally embraced stem cell research. However, researchers are still not permitted to use public funding to create and destroy human embryos – they can only use already fertilized embryos donated by patients from IVF clinics. If the research is privately funded, then researchers can both make and dispose of human embryos.

This little history lesson sets the stage for a discovery made in America and published this week in Nature, where researchers in Oregon (with collaborators in South Korea and China) were able to use gene editing to remove a heart defect-causing gene in human embryos. This technique is called CRISPR-Cas9, which uses prokaryotic (bacterial) DNA to target desired genes to be deleted or replaced and has already been used to edit embryos (human, other vertebrates, invertebrates and plants) with mixed results. There are reports of both off-target mutations (editing occurring in the wrong place) or mosaic embryos, meaning some cells are edited while others are not. What sets this new paper apart from the pack is the researchers inserted the CRISPR-Cas9 complex at the same time as the sperm, thus the editing began at fertilization. The inserted Cas9 protein was degraded too quickly to be effective at producing off-target mutations, and since the editing happened at conception only one out of 58 embryos was a mosaic. In contrast, waiting as little as 18 hours after fertilization to edit the embryo resulted in 13 out of 54 mosaic embryos.

For those worried about the production of designer babies, this study alleviates some of these concerns as well. Although researchers in this study provided a synthetic DNA template for the CRISPR-Cas9 system to rewrite the faulty gene, the cells ended up using the healthy mother’s DNA strands. This means scientists aren’t yet able to create babies to specifications, just strongly favor the existing but healthier parental gene to be passed on to the offspring. There are obvious ethics issues involved in creating human embryos and destroying them in the name of scientific discovery. However, getting rid of fatal diseases by gene editing could be music to the ears of parents who long to have children of their own but don’t want to risk having children affected with lethal conditions. The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine have launched the Human Gene-Editing Initiative to tangle with these issues as they arrive to policy forums.

(Heidi Ledford, Nature News)

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Written by sciencepolicyforall

August 4, 2017 at 3:31 pm

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