Human Germline Hype Pings around the Globe

Posted by Pete Shanks November 20, 2013
Biopolitical Times

In early November there was what GenomeWeb accurately called "a media swoon" about one particular gene editing technology, and "in particular the question of whether this method may be used to improve people at the germ line level." Less than two weeks later, the brouhaha seems to have evaporated, but it's worth examining because it shows how media manipulation can distort scientific reality.

The story was launched (5 pages/month free; text also here) in London by The Independent, a roughly center-left newspaper that is by some distance the lowest-selling British national daily. Doubtless this explains why the editors keep fiddling with the paper's design. Originally a broadsheet, it switched to a smaller format in 2003-4, redesigned in 2005, with tweaks in the next few years before a major revamp in 2010, adjusted again in 2011 … and still the sales continued to fall. So on November 7, 2013, it changed again.

But even the greatest design needs content to sell. And what did they choose? The front page (pictured; larger here) featured a large picture of Yasser Arafat, separated by a modest horizontal line from the main headline:

The next genetic revolution

(Seriously, did no one notice this juxtaposition?) Arafat has been dead for 9 years, and the rumors about his poisoning had been floating around for weeks. The top of the page pushes a speculative piece about President Kennedy, the anniversary of whose death was still two weeks away. The other teasers discuss a Russell Brand interview that was already two weeks old, a TV show hooked to twerking (the October sensation), and two political thumb-suckers that could have run in any month this year or last.

In other words, they were not news. Nor is the so-called "genetic revolution," notwithstanding the Independent's headline:

Exclusive: 'Jaw-dropping' breakthrough hailed as landmark in fight against hereditary diseases as Crispr technique heralds genetic revolution

This front-page story by Science Editor Steve Connor was supported by a separate interview (also here) with Jennifer Doudna of UC Berkeley, a video explanation of the science, and an op-ed by Nobel laureate Craig Mello ("a triumph of basic science with huge implications"). The day after, the Independent featured a round-up of quotes ("Scientists call for more public debate") and the initial coverage was topped off with an editorial:

March of science: The 21st century will be the age of genetics.
It is time to put our fears about 'designer babies' into perspective.

That's a lot of "exclusive" discussion. The development that underlies it all is a gene-editing technique that was hailed as "a Swiss army knife" — in August of 2012. Its cute acronym, Crispr (Clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats), helps its media appeal, but the work is real and important.

Doudna, Emmanuelle Charpentier of Umea University in Sweden, and their colleagues identified an enzyme, CAS9, that could cut both strands of DNA at a specified location. From the interview:

"You can actually introduce new genetic information at the site of cleavage. So it has become a powerful way of doing genetic engineering. It's a fundamentally different way of recognising DNA target sites," Professor Doudna said.

Could this be done in human cells? Yes, that has subsequently been demonstrated by several teams, including Doudna et al. (pdf here) and — slightly earlier to press — in two papers published online in Science on January 3, 2013, by Feng Zhang et al. and by George Church et al., who note that:

Our results establish an RNA-guided editing tool for facile, robust, and multiplexable human genome engineering.

Did anyone notice? Why, yes they did. See, for instance, Nature (sub, January 9), Extreme Tech (January 9) and Science Daily (January 7):

Cheap and Easy Technique to Snip DNA Could Revolutionize Gene Therapy

And does anyone have scientific doubts about the technique? Why, yes they do. In June, this letter was published in Nature Biotechnology:

High-frequency off-target mutagenesis induced by CRISPR-Cas nucleases in human cells

In other words, the accuracy of the technique may have been overstated, leading to unexpected genetic alterations.

The Independent's recent series lacked any such context. It is, essentially, a magazine-style puff piece and that's all. It's admittedly based on genuine science, but that is still evolving, and subject to an entirely normal process of professional criticism. Moreover, Connor just had to add the designer-baby twist to his interview:

But perhaps the most intriguing and controversial application of Crispr-CAS9 will be the possibility of altering the genes of IVF embryos. Studies on mouse embryos show it is incredibly effective, and some IVF doctors may want to see if it can work on human embryos — which is illegal in Britain at present because it amounts to "germline" gene therapy.

Doudna, responding, downplayed this:

"Certainly, at this stage, I don't think we understand it well enough. Would you be correcting one problem but introducing others?"

But Connor had his story. Which caught the interest of the Daily Mail (circulation about 25 times larger than the Independent's) and Newstrack India, among others. Kate Henderson of the Las Vegas Guardian Express put together a pretty good selection of the notably enthusiastic quotes from the various articles. And thus talk of human germline intervention pings around the globe.

Fortunately, there was some pushback. BioNews ran a piece that included some mildly moderating comments, some of which seem to have been provided by the Science Media Centre (itself the subject of controversy for pro-GM publicity). The consensus was that there remains "a long way to go," the technology requires "a significant amount of work" and "the hype needs to be tempered with a little caution." Church, with his usual knack for the media-friendly quote, commented:

"Talking about the future is better than letting it sneak up on us. We need to do more of this or we will be left with very limited vocabulary in the space between positive and negative hype."

According to the Guardian (admittedly, an interested party), the Independent's re-launch boosted the its national circulation on day one by only 3,000, most of which evaporated the next day. But the hype may linger on.

Previously on Biopolitical Times: