Jul 19, 2018

Axios Science

By Alison Snyder
Alison Snyder

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1 big thing: Questioning CRISPR's safety

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

A gene editing tool with promising clinical applications is facing renewed scrutiny after several recent studies found its side effects could be worse than expected, Eileen Drage O"Reilly writes.

Sometimes heralded as "revolutionary," CRISPR-Cas9 is the subject of a massive investment of money and research efforts toward the ultimate goal of editing human genes, which many hope will begin on a trial basis in the U.S. this year.

The big question: Is CRISPR-Cas9 safe enough to expand it into human clinical trials? The consensus of scientists whom Axios spoke with: Not quite yet.

"The CRISPR reagents are wonderful tools for research but we still do not control them enough for safe and efficient use into patients. Particularly we know very little about the DNA repairing mechanisms triggered after the cut by Cas9."
Lluis Montoliu, research scientist, Spanish National Research Council (CSIS)

CRISPR is a hot topic, and for good reason: it could have a wide range of applications for treating diseases and correcting genetic conditions in humans.

Advances in research are published frequently. For instance, yesterday Science Translational Medicine published a study in which researchers took cancer cells that had left their original tumor in mice, edited them with CRISPR to have "suicide genes," and re-injected them into the animal to see if they would return to the tumor and end up killing the cancer. They said they found "marked survival benefits."

Still, there's always been a steady drumbeat of cautionary tales since it's been known the editing process often targets the wrong gene. Problems can also be caused when the cell repairs itself after the editing process, Montoliu says.

This was brought sharply into focus in recent studies:

  • Earlier this week, U.K. scientists published a study in Nature Biotechnology saying in some cases CRISPR may cause large deletions and rearrange the DNA it is targeting. They warned that the problem has been "seriously underestimated."
  • This follows recent studies that found CRISPR may inadvertently increase the risk of triggering cancer.
  • In May, the FDA halted a trial for sickle cell patients before it started. Scientists planned to edit bone marrow stem cells using CRISPR and then transplant them back into the patients.

What's next: Michael Kosicki, study author of the Wellcome Sanger Institute study from the U.K., says questions for researchers include:

"Is there any important genes close to the one we want to edit? How often do large deletions, rearrangements and especially translocations happen in relevant cells? And finally, how much risk is acceptable? The answer to the last question depends on how serious the treated disease is."

Go deeper: Read the full story in the Axios stream.

2. Human "fingerprints" found in seasonal cycle
Expand chart
Adapted from an article by Santer et al. in Science, July 20; Map: Axios Visuals

Human activities are altering Earth's seasons in a way that is creating a greater contrast between summer and winter in much of North America, Europe and Eurasia, a new study finds.

Why it matters: The research, published Thursday in Science, is the first to find a human "fingerprint" on the seasonal cycle of temperatures, adding another global trend that is formally attributed to human emissions of greenhouse gases (GHGs).

Other trends already pinned on human activities include an increasing amount of heat held in the world's oceans, the sharp decline in Arctic sea ice cover, and changes in the water cycle that are leading to heavier downpours as well as severe drought events.

Based on computer models and basic physics, scientists had an idea of how temperatures in the troposphere — the layer of air extending from near Earth's surface to about 35,000 feet and where most weather occurs — should be varying from one season to the next as the world warms overall. The new study put these model simulations — with and without increased GHG — to the test against observations.

How they did it: The researchers combined 38 years of satellite observations of the troposphere and computer model data.

What they found: Human-caused emissions of GHGs have altered the seasonal cycle around the world, as measured in the troposphere, but with ramifications for conditions at the surface.

"There’s compelling evidence from this work that human activities are now changing the seasonal cycle of temperature and that’s something that we really care about because the difference between summer and winter affects a lot of our lives."
— Benjamin Santer, study author, Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory

Go deeper: Read the full story in the Axios stream.

3. Heat wave and wildfires scorch the Arctic
Animation of CAMS model showing projected transport of Siberian wildfire smoke, taking it across the pole, into North America. Credit: ECMWF

A scorching heat wave has swept across Scandinavia, breaking all-time heat records into the Arctic Circle. Meanwhile, Sweden is facing a major wildfire outbreak, and the forests of Siberia are ablaze after weeks of extreme heat.

Why it matters: The heat wave and wildfires are causing evacuations and threatening communities in Sweden, where the area burned already exceeds that of the average fire season by thousands of acres, per the Copernicus Emergency Management Service. Plus, the wildfire smoke is hitching a ride on mid-to-upper atmospheric winds to as far away as the U.S.

  • Temperatures climbed into the 90s Fahrenheit above the Arctic Circle on Tuesday and Wednesday, and remained high again on Thursday.
  • The overnight low temperature in Makkaur, Finland, on Thursday morning was a balmy 25.2°C, or 77.3°F. According to meteorologist Etienne Kapikian, this may be a new record for the Arctic.

The wildfires burning across Sweden during this stretch of hot, dry weather is unprecedented in modern times, according to The Weather Channel. All-time high temperature records have fallen in Finland, Norway and Sweden this week.

Go deeper: Read the full story in the Axios stream.

4. Axios stories worth your time

National parks: Air pollution in some of popular U.S. national parks is on par with that in the nation's 20 largest cities, a study shows. This is having a dampening effect on visitor numbers, Henrietta Reily writes.

AI leader: Kaveh Waddell writes that a Tsinghua University study shows two-thirds of global AI investment today goes to China and threatening to rob the U.S. of its tenuous AI lead.

Ending AIDS: We already have the tools we need to effectively end the AIDS epidemic, Eileen reports. The story details comments by Anthony Fauci, a top public health official, before the AIDS2018 conference next week.

Sea level rise: Global warming could threaten key elements of the physical internet, particularly in the next 15 years, according to a new study.

Hot June: Last month was either the third or fourth-warmest June on record for the globe, according to NASA and NOAA, respectively. The findings indicate it's likely that 2018 will be a top 5 warmest year.

5. Stories we're reading elsewhere

Wildfires: It's not the number of wildfires that is the problem in the U.S., but rather the increasing size of them that we should be concerned about, according to Maggie Koerth-Baker of FiveThirtyEight.

Health costs: Atul Guwande, a writer and physician, is now the CEO of a company tasked with figuring lowering health care costs. His first move is to go on the road to hear his workers' health care woes, Casey Ross of STAT reports.

Jupiter's moons: Astronomers accidentally found 12 tiny, new moons circling around Jupiter, per National Geographic's Nadia Drake.

Blue Origin: Jeff Bezos' spaceflight company Blue Origin completed a key test of its crew capsule this week, bringing it closer to launching humans into space, Mark Kaufman writes for Mashable.

6. Something wondrous

Image of the planet Neptune obtained during the testing of the Narrow-Field adaptive optics mode of the MUSE/GALACSI instrument on ESO’s Very Large Telescope. Credit: ESO

Neptune doesn't have the same mystery as Jupiter, with its swirling storms and auroras. Nor does it have the mystique of upcoming human exploration, like Mars. But wow, it's a neat planet.

We have a new, clear view of Neptune, thanks to the European Southern Observatory's Very Large Telescope. The ESO has upgraded the optics on the VLT, enabling it to capture sharp images of planets, star clusters and other objects. The goal is to correct for turbulence at different altitudes in the Earth's atmosphere, which enables the VLT to take visible wavelength pictures as sharp the Hubble Space Telescope.

Scientists hope to use this telescope to study supermassive black holes, jets from young stars, supernovae, planets and their satellites.

"The same turbulence in the atmosphere that causes stars to twinkle to the naked eye results in blurred images of the Universe for large telescopes. Light from stars and galaxies becomes distorted as it passes through our atmosphere, and astronomers must use clever technology to improve image quality artificially," an ESO press release states.

Alison Snyder