emerging technologies

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CRISPR gene editing therapy for HIV is heading into human testing after FDA clearance

BY ANNALEE ARMSTRONG FIERCE BIOTECH

A CRISPR-Cas9 gene editing technology that has shown promise in clearing HIV from mice is headed into human testing. Excision BioTherapeutics will usher the CRISPR-based therapy EBT-101 into clinical trials after the FDA cleared an investigational new drug application, according to the company’s press release. EBT-101 is under development as a potential virus-clearing treatment for patients with HIV—or, put in the company’s words, “a potential functional cure for chronic HIV.”

We don’t like to throw the word “cure” around here. But Excision thinks the therapy could replace standard-of-care retroviral therapy, which keeps HIV from replicating but does not remove it from the body. That means patients stay on the treatment, which can cause serious side effects and affect quality of life. Continue Reading →

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First genetically modified mosquitoes released in the United States

BY EMILY WALTZ
NATURE
After a decade of fighting for regulatory approval and public acceptance, a biotechnology firm has released genetically engineered mosquitoes into the open air in the United States for the first time. The experiment, launched this week in the Florida Keys — over the objections of some local critics — tests a method for suppressing populations of wild Aedes aegypti mosquitoes, which can carry diseases such as Zika, dengue, chikungunya and yellow fever. Continue Reading →

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This microbe no longer needs to eat food to grow, thanks to a bit of genetic engineering

BY ROBERT F SERVICE
SCIENCE MAGAZINE
Synthetic biologists have performed a biochemical switcheroo. They’ve re-engineered a bacterium that normally eats a diet of simple sugars into one that builds its cells by absorbing carbon dioxide (CO2), much like plants. The work could lead to engineered microbes that suck CO2 out of the air and turn it into medicines and other high-value compounds. Continue Reading →

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The world’s first Gattaca baby tests are finally here

BY ANTONIO REGALADO
MIT TECHNOLOGY REVIEW
Anxious couples are approaching fertility doctors in the US with requests for a hotly debated new genetic test being called “23andMe, but on embryos.”

The baby-picking test is being offered by a New Jersey startup company, Genomic Prediction, whose plans we first reported on two years ago.

The company says it can use DNA measurements to predict which embryos from an IVF procedure are least likely to end up with any of 11 different common diseases. In the next few weeks it’s set to release case studies on its first clients. Continue Reading →

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SickKids scientist calls for ‘national strategy’ to get genome sequencing covered in Canada

BY GENNA BUCK
NATIONAL POST
Whole-genome sequencing is not available in Canada yet under any provincial health plan. But Ontario’s health-care quality agency is currently reviewing a proposal to cover it for children with unexplained developmental delay, said Wendy Ungar, director of technology assessment at Toronto’s SickKids hospital, a major Canadian centre for this area of research. Continue Reading →

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World’s first living organism with fully redesigned DNA created

BY IAN SAMPLE
THE GUARDIAN

Scientists have created the world’s first living organism that has a fully synthetic and radically altered DNA code.

The lab-made microbe, a strain of bacteria that is normally found in soil and the human gut, is similar to its natural cousins but survives on a smaller set of genetic instructions.

The bug’s existence proves life can exist with a restricted genetic code and paves the way for organisms whose biological machinery is commandeered to make drugs and useful materials, or to add new features such as virus resistance.

In a two-year effort, researchers at the Medical Research Council’s Laboratory of Molecular Biology in Cambridge read and redesigned the DNA of the bacterium Escherichia coli (E coli), before creating cells with a synthetic version of the altered genome.

The artificial genome holds 4m base pairs, the units of the genetic code spelled out by the letters G, A, T and C. Printed in full on A4 sheets, it runs to 970 pages, making the genome the largest by far that scientists have ever built.

“It was completely unclear whether it was possible to make a genome this large and whether it was possible to change it so much,” said Jason Chin, an expert in synthetic biology who led the project.

The DNA coiled up inside a cell holds the instructions it needs to function. When the cell needs more protein to grow, for example, it reads the DNA that encodes the right protein. The DNA letters are read in trios called codons, such as TCG and TCA.

Nearly all life, from jellyfish to humans, uses 64 codons. But many of them do the same job. In total, 61 codons make 20 natural amino acids, which can be strung together like beads on a string to build any protein in nature. Three more codons are in effect stop signs: they tell the cell when the protein is done, like the full stop marking the end of this sentence.

The Cambridge team set out to redesign the E coli genome by removing some of its superfluous codons. Working on a computer, the scientists went through the bug’s DNA. Whenever they came across TCG, a codon that makes an amino acid called serine, they rewrote it as AGC, which does the same job. They replaced two more codons in a similar way.

More than 18,000 edits later, the scientists had removed every occurrence of the three codons from the bug’s genome. The redesigned genetic code was then chemically synthesised and, piece by piece, added to E coli where it replaced the organism’s natural genome. The result, reported in Nature, is a microbe with a completely synthetic and radically altered DNA code. Known as Syn61, the bug is a little longer than normal, and grows more slowly, but survives nonetheless.

“It’s pretty amazing,” said Chin. When the bug was created, shortly before Christmas, the research team had a photo taken in the lab with a plate of the microbes as the central figure in a recreation of the nativity.

Such designer lifeforms could come in handy, Chin believes. Because their DNA is different, invading viruses will struggle to spread inside them, making them in effect virus-resistant. That could bring benefits. E coli is already used by the biopharmaceutical industry to make insulin for diabetes and other medical compounds for cancer, multiple sclerosis, heart attacks and eye disease, but entire production runs can be spoiled when bacterial cultures are contaminated with viruses or other microbes. But that is not all: in future work, the freed-up genetic code could be repurposed to make cells churn out designer enzymes, proteins and drugs.

In 2010, US scientists announced the creation of the world’s first organism with a synthetic genome. The bug, Mycoplasma mycoides, has a smaller genome than E coli – about 1m base pairs – and was not radically redesigned. Commenting on the latest work, Clyde Hutchison, from the US research group, said: “This scale of genome replacement is larger than any complete genome replacement reported so far.”

“They have taken the field of synthetic genomics to a new level, not only successfully building the largest ever synthetic genome to date, but also making the most coding changes to a genome so far,” said Tom Ellis, a synthetic biology researcher at Imperial College London.

But the records may not stand for long. Ellis and others are building a synthetic genome for baker’s yeast, while Harvard scientists are making bacterial genomes with more coding changes. That the redesigned E coli does not grow as well as natural strains is not surprising, Ellis added. “If anything it’s surprising it grows at all after so many changes,” he said.

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Scientists may have found a way to treat cancer without chemotherapy by replicating our body’s own self-destruct system

BY LISA SCHONHAAR
BUSINESS INSIDER
Every day, millions of cells in our bodies “kill” themselves and are quickly removed.
While the mechanism may sound dramatic, it’s for our own good. The process ensures that potentially harmful cells destroy themselves and protects us from diseases.
Cancer cells, however, can protect themselves from self-destruction by ignoring our immune system’s cell-death signals — and that’s precisely what makes them so dangerous.
Continue Reading →

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