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SMC Bulletin - Gene-editing claim concerns

Gene-editing claim concerns

Internationally, scientists and ethicists have expressed concerns after claims that researchers in China used CRISPR gene editing in human embryos that resulted in live births.

The Associated Press reported on Monday (NZT) that Dr He Jiankui - from the Southern University of Science and Technology of China - had apparently altered embryos for seven couples during fertility treatments, with one pregnancy so far.

He said the birth had resulted in twin girls, one of whom had two copies of the edited gene - conferring protection against HIV infection - but the other had just one, which would not provide protection.

Researchers have expressed scepticism that the claims are even true, but have widely condemned them nonetheless. He has since presented his research in Hong Kong at the second international summit on genome editing, but nothing has been peer reviewed or published.

University of Otago lecturer Dr Jeanne Snelling, from the Bioethics Centre and Faculty of Law, said the initial reports were "extremely concerning".

"Most of the international scientific community agree that it the science is far too premature for CRISPR research to be used in a clinical context."

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In addition, the gene that He claims to have edited was not associated with a serious condition, "in fact this was essentially an unnecessary enhancement procedure that would be associated with risks that do not have offsetting benefits," Dr Snelling said.

University of Sydney's Associate Professor of Bioethics Ainsley Newson said it appeared the research "wanted to be the first rather than waiting to be safe".

"It is still early days for human genome editing; with lots of scientific and ethical issues needing to be ironed out before it is used to change a genome of an embryo and its future descendants."

Assistant Director of the Nuffield Council on Bioethics Peter Mills wrote his reflections of He's presentation of his work in Hong Kong on Wednesday and the ensuing Q&A session.

"My overall impression from He’s answers was of someone who really just did not know what he did not know, who simply was not aware of the norms and expectations of clinical research and innovation, and who was unaccustomed to critical reflection.

"Irresponsible it may have been, but the creation of genome edited babies is now something that is a real part of the social world, not something that can be left behind in the laboratory or abandoned as a mis-step.

"This means that the scientific community has now to respond to it and to decide how to move forwards from here, rather than bracketing it out and returning to the path that they had hoped to follow in the first place."

The SMC asked an expert to comment on the initial reports.

Quoted: The Project
"There are already locations in New Zealand that are unable to get insurance.

"And some people don't know that until they go to sell their house and then they find that anyone who wants to buy their property isn't able to get insurance."
Deep South researcher and Climate Sigma managing director Belinda Storey on the impacts of sea level rise on housing insurance.

Media focus on climate change
This week Stuff launched an in-depth project focused on covering climate change, amidst new reports warning of the dire consequences of inaction.

Stuff Editor in Chief Patrick Crewdson kicked off the project with an editorial warning that complacency might be the worst reaction to the threat of climate change.

"Under an avalanche of foreboding news – sea level rises, melting ice sheets, accelerating species extinction, heatwaves, ocean acidification – despair comes naturally.

"Yet despite the alarming evidence of the need for urgent action, climate change still falls victim to a shrugging complacency."

He wrote that the project - Quick! Save the Planet - would aim to keep climate change "at the foreground of the national conversation".

The project's launch included a feature article from Stuff National Correspondent Charlie Mitchell focused on the impact of climate change on coastal communities, including the likelihood it would exacerbate current inequities.

University of Otago political theorist Dr Lisa Ellis, who has been studying how the risk of sea-level rise is distributed, said communities with less economic power could end up being forced to move, while wealthier communities may use public money to fortify the coasts.

"The rich get seawalls and the poor get moved."

The project's launch coincided with a number of major climate change reports' release: On the day after Thanksgiving, the US government released a report from a number of federal agencies warning of the economic and humanitarian costs of leaving climate change un-checked.

Then on Wednesday, the United Nations released a report ahead of next month's COP24 conference in Poland concluding that most countries won't meet the Paris Agreement's 2020 targets.

Today The Lancet published a synthesis of the effect climate change was already having on human health, including a decline in crop yields across 30 countries raising concerns about malnutrition in some regions.

Dr Rhys Jones, co-convener of OraTaiao, told the NZ Herald that the potential benefits of mitigating climate change were "staggering".

"Rapidly phasing out coal, oil and gas; switching from car trips to more walking, cycling and public transport; healthier diets lower in red meat and dairy; and energy efficient, warm homes will all cut emissions while also reducing many of the major diseases that kill New Zealanders."

Upcoming SAVVY workshops
Our flagship media training course returns in 2019 - with the first two-day workshop of the year in Christchurch.
Further 2019 workshops will be confirmed at a later date, but we're taking applications for Christchurch now, and it would be a good idea to apply before Christmas:
7-8 February

Our experienced facilitators provide a supportive environment for researchers to consider their work from different perspectives and find new ways to describe the value of their research to the public.

Ideally suited for researchers with previous media experience seeking further development of their skills, as well as beginners anticipating media interest in their work.

Applications close 10 January

Policy news & developments

Stink bugs on ship: A ship transporting vehicles has been ordered to leave New Zealand waters following the discovery of live brown marmorated stink bugs on board.

Meningococcal vaccination: A targeted vaccination programme in Northland aims to control an outbreak of meningococcal disease.

Bag ban confirmed: The Government has confirmed a ban on plastic single-use shopping bags will come into effect around the middle of next year.

Liver harm warning: The Director General of Health has renewed a public warning following more reports of serious liver harm from taking Arthrem.

Predator free discussion: DOC has asked for feedback on a discussion guide around achieving the Predator Free 2050 goal.

Vaping rules: The Government plans to regulate vaping and smokeless tobacco products, including banning vaping in bars, restaurants and workplaces.

Block Offer consultation: New Zealand Petroleum & Minerals has started consultation with iwi and hapū on the proposed 2018 Block Offer area for petroleum exploration.

Kids on bikes: $23 million will be invested over three years to expand the Bikes in Schools programme aimed at getting more kids on bicycles.

Food labels: A bill to introduce mandatory country of origin labelling for foods was passed in Parliament on Wednesday night.

Antarctic science: MBIE has finalised a $49 million contract with Antarctica New Zealand to fund the Antarctic Science Platform.

Surgical mesh: The Government is asking people to register their interest in sharing their surgical mesh experiences, in order to improve patient safety in the future.

What we've been reading
With an abundance of news stories to possibly read, watch and listen to, it can be hard to find the gems. Here we highlight some of the stories that caught our attention this week.
Emma Espiner: How we fought meningitis last time
As NZ faces its latest meningitis outbreak, it's important to look at how health professionals and communities succeeded in stopping our last one in South Auckland in the 1990s. For Newsroom, Emma Espiner talks to Auckland population health Professor Chris Bullen, who was one of the small team that helped turn around meningitis rates in the most affected communities before there was a vaccine.

Quick! Save the Planet: We must confront climate change
This long-term Stuff project aims to disturb our collective complacency. In an introductory editorial, Stuff editor-in-chief Patrick Crewdson, says "with insistent, inconvenient coverage, we intend to make the realities of climate change feel tangible – and unignorable". The project accepts the statement that climate change is real and caused by human activity.

What’s the beef with methane?
The government’s proposal for a Zero Carbon Bill has exposed an argument between scientists about the importance of methane. But it’s not really about science, as Eloise Gibson reports in this deep-dive feature for Newsroom.

New from Sciblogs - NZ's science blog network

Some of the highlights from this week's Sciblogs posts:

Sentinels of change: prehistoric penguin species raise conservation conundrum

Hoiho takes pride of place on our $5 note, but we're still learning about how and when the yellow-eyed penguin arrived on Mainland New Zealand.
Lost World, Vanished Lives

Hydrophobic cabbage

Ever noticed water beading on the leaves of red cabbage? Marcus Wilson explains why that happens.
Physics Stop

Human gene-edited babies: hold the horses

Grant Jacobs is sceptical about reports of CRISPR-edited babies.
Code for Life

Artificially sweetened beverages: What does the latest evidence tell us on health benefits versus harm?

Otago public health researchers review the evidence on the benefits vs harm of artificially-sweetened drinks.
Public Health Expert

Upcoming events

Please see the SMC Events Calendar for more events and details.
Reducing our prison population: 3 December, Tauranga. Dr Juan Tauri from the University Waikato will present an overview of past attempts to review the performance of the New Zealand criminal justice system.

China's new tourists: 4th December, Wellington. This conference brings world-leading experts on Chinese outbound tourism to New Zealand to debate the drivers and shifting nature of the tourist market.

Seeking refuge: 4th December, Wellington. Hear two personal stories of what it is like to seek refuge in New Zealand from Inge Woolf, who came to New Zealand as a Holocaust refugee in the 1950s, and Ibrahim Omerwho arrived in 2008 from war-torn Eritrea.

Otago gold: 4th December, Dunedin. Professor David Craw talks about the origins, history, landscape and biology of Otago gold. The event will also be live-streamed.

Astronomy on Tap: 4th December, Wellington. The International Space Station turns 20 this year and is still going strong. Space Place is running a nighttime event about the ISS.

The Tapestry Project: 5th December, Dunedin. Members of the Otago Embroiders Guild will be working on panels for the New Zealand: A History in Stitch project. Come and chat.

Free from financial crash?: 5th December, Wellington. Prof Martin Hellwig examines the health of the financial system and how we'd weather a financial crash similar to the crisis in 2007-2009. Short answer: not well.

Human vs Machine: 5th December, Auckland. Lorena Jaume-Palasi will explain the major differences between human and algorithm-assisted decision-making and share the trends she is seeing internationally.

Café Scientifique: 5th December, Palmerston North. Graeme Gillies, Senior Research Scientist for Fonterra, will be talking about the surprisingly unusual physics of cheese.

Inside the Nobel: 6th December, Dunedin. Five University of Otago academics discuss the significance behind each of the 2018 Nobel prizes.

Disruption and Renewal: 5-7 December, Christchurch. The DevNet Development Studies conference will explore climate disruption affecting the Pacific and Asia, and political disruptions in Myanmar and its effects on Bangladesh.

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