With working organs and a realistic face, the world’s most high-tech humanoid made his debut in London yesterday and will be a one-man show at the city’s London Science Museum starting tomorrow.
The robot goes by Rex (short for robotic exoskeleton) or Million-Dollar Man (because that’s how much it cost to build him). Rex looks somewhat lifelike in that he has prosthetic hands, feet and a face modeled after a real man. That man is Swiss social psychologist Bertolt Meyer, who himself has a prosthetic hand. Such technology is now becoming more widely available to the general public.
But where Rex really breaks new ground is his suite of working organs. Read More
As more hospitals have begun using DNA testing to analyze babies with birth defects, doctors have occasionally discovered that a family’s little bundle of joy is also a product of incest. Since this is a new dilemma brought on by the spread of technology, doctors are now debating how to handle these incest surprises.
Geneticist Arthur Beaudet at Baylor College of Medicine addressed the issue yesterday in an article in the medical journal The Lancet. The genetic test, the single nucleotide polymorphism-based array, helps doctors identify missing genes (and can therefore help explain a child’s birth defect or disability)–but it also identifies swaths of identical DNA that a child may have inherited from two closely related parents.
In the few months that Baylor has been performing these detailed genetic tests, there have been fewer than 10 cases of consanguinity — the phenomenon of inheriting the same gene variations from two closely related people, said Dr. Arthur L. Beaudet, chairman of Baylor’s department of molecular and human genetics. However, wider use of such testing in children with disabilities is expected to identify additional cases of incestuous parentage. [ABC News]
In its first official report, the Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues recommended that the budding field of synthetic biology remain unregulated.
In the report‘s (pdf) 18 recommendations, the commission does suggest that synthetic biologists should self-regulate their work and be required to take ethics training. It also recommends that the president’s office better coordinate government agencies to oversee the work. But it stopped short of calling for a halt on research that creates organisms not found in nature.
“The commission thinks it imprudent either to declare a moratorium on synthetic biology until all risks can be determined and mitigated, or to simply ‘let science rip,’ regardless of the likely risks,” the report says. “The Commission instead proposes a middle ground — an ongoing system of prudent vigilance that carefully monitors, identifies and mitigates potential and realized harms over time.” [The New York Times]
A neuroscientist who has spoken out in support of animal testing is in the news again after a militant animal rights group sent razor blades and a threatening note to his house. The group claims that the razor blades were contaminated with HIV-infected blood.
The researcher, J. David Jentsch, who studies addiction and schizophrenia at UCLA, explains the incident:
“About a week ago I was going through my mail in my kitchen and I opened a letter and razor blades spilled out on the floor. It was the first sign something was nefarious,” he said. “The letter inside contained quite specific and heinous acts of violence to kill me.” [CNN]
Jentsch made headlines last year when he staged a pro-test rally in support of (humane) animal research after an animal rights group fire-bombed his car in his driveway. The threats and harassment of Jentsch and other department employees have continued, but Jentsch seems undaunted and undeterred.
Stem cell work will go on. But the shape of its long-term future is a mystery.
A court ruling yesterday that said the federal government can’t fund embryonic stem cell research even if no money goes to destroying embryos has thrown the field into confusion. Today, though, NIH head Francis Collins says that while the government can’t fund new projects (at least until the legal dispute is resolved), researchers in the middle of federally funded projects can continue.
The Justice Department said yesterday it will appeal the injunction issued Monday by a federal judge in Washington. Collins said that if the decision stands, it puts in jeopardy a fast-moving area of science that offers potential treatments for spinal cord injury, diabetes, and Parkinson’s disease, as well as help in screening new drugs. “This decision has just poured sand into this engine of discovery,’’ he said [Boston Globe].
The good news: By combining the DNA of parents with genetic material from a third person, scientists might have developed a way for women with rare genetic disorders to have healthy children. The bad news: The ethical complications involved are so messy that it might be a long time coming.
The researchers outline their work in a study in this week’s Nature. On the surface, the idea is fairly simple. They took the nuclei out of the father’s sperm and the mother’s egg, and transplanted them into a donor’s egg cell that had its nucleus removed, but whose mitochondria remained in the cell’s cytoplasm. What you get is the genetics of both parents, plus the mitochondrial DNA of the host. This technique was pioneered in monkeys last summer, but researchers have now done a proof-of-principle study with human cells.
Mitochondria are often called cellular power plants, because they provide most of the cell’s energy. They also contain their own batch of so-called mitochondrial DNA that can, when mutated, give rise to disease. “What we’ve done is like changing the battery on a laptop,” said lead author Professor Doug Turnbull. “The energy supply now works properly, but none of the information on the hard drive has been changed. A child born using this method would have correctly functioning mitochondria, but in every other respect would get all their genetic information from their father and mother” [BBC News].
In a far-reaching judgment that could have major implications for the biotech industry, a federal judge in Manhattan has struck down patents related to two human genes linked to hereditary breast and ovarian cancers, BRCA1 and BRCA2.
Myriad Genetics held the patents, and women who want to find out if they have a high genetic risk for these cancers have to get a test sold by Myriad, which costs more than $3,000. Plaintiffs in the case had said Myriad’s monopoly on the test, conferred by the gene patents, kept prices high and prevented women from getting a confirmatory test from another laboratory [The New York Times]. In his decision, United States District Court Judge Robert W. Sweet found that the company’s patents were invalid because the genes are “found in nature,” and products of nature can’t be patented. In essence, he agreed with the plaintiffs’ argument that the genetic code contained in each human being’s cells shouldn’t be private property.
Tuesday’s decision, if upheld, could have wide repercussions for the multi-billion dollar biotech industry, which is built on more than 40,000 gene patents. Already, about 20 percent of the human genes have been patented. The decision, however, is not binding on other federal courts and other judges may or may not abide by it. But it does the set the stage for years of litigation over other gene patents. Myriad Genetics plans to appeal the judgment.
Last year DISCOVER asked the question, “Did We Mate With Neanderthals, or Did We Murder Them?” Now, Zach Zorich at Archaeology magazine is asking another big question about our hominid siblings: Should we bring them back?
Thanks to a slew of recent advances, the possibility is getting closer. 80beats reported a year ago that researchers had published the rough draft of the Neanderthal genome. However, that’s likely to contain many errors because it’s so difficult to reconstruct ancient DNA. Within hours of death, cells begin to break down in a process called apoptosis. The dying cells release enzymes that chop up DNA into tiny pieces. In a human cell, this means that the entire three-billion-base-pair genome is reduced to fragments about 50 base-pairs long [Archaeology].
Even if scientists succeed in figuring out the entire Neanderthal genome, they’d be faced with another problem before they could even consider the possibility of cloning one of these ancient hominids: We don’t have any living Neanderthal cells to work with. Thus, researchers will have to figure out how to put DNA into chromosomes, and how to get those chromosomes into the nucleus of a cell. What about altering the DNA inside a living human cell, and tweaking our genetic code to match the Neanderthal’s? This kind of genetic engineering can already be done, but very few changes can be made at one time. To clone a Neanderthal, thousands or possibly millions of changes would have to be made to a human cell’s DNA [Archaeology].
Even if scientists manage to put Neanderthal DNA in a cell nucleus, their problems aren’t over. The next step in creating a baby clone is to move the cell nucleus into the egg of a related species in a technique called nuclear transfer, and then implanting the altered egg in a female who can bear it to term. But in this process, which has been extensively tested on animals, cells often get sick or die, causing fetuses to die in the womb or clones to die young. That’s why the vast majority of scientists oppose using this method on people. Even if nuclear transfer cloning could be perfected in humans or Neanderthals, it would likely require a horrifying period of trial and error [Archaeology].
Don’t let anyone treat you badly because of your genes. As of this weekend, it will be against the law.
The Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act (GINA) prevents both employers and insurance companies from requiring genetic tests or from using your family’s medical history against you. The biggest change resulting from the law is that it will–except in a few circumstances—prohibit employers and health insurers from asking employees to give their family medical histories. The law also bans group health plans from the common practice of rewarding workers, often with lower premiums or one-time payments, if they give their family medical histories when completing health risk questionnaires [The New York Times]. The law also bars employers from requiring genetic testing or using such information to make decisions on hiring, firing or promoting employees.
To alleviate the privacy concerns of people that have had genetic testing, Congress stepped in and passed GINA last year. The act takes effect Nov. 21 for all employers with 15 or more employees. It applies to group health insurers whose plan years begin on or after Dec. 7, and it took effect for individual health insurance plans last May. The act does not apply to life insurers. The act would ban a company from not promoting a 49-year-old to chief executive because it knew his father and grandfather died of heart attacks at age 50 [The New York Times]. It is still legal for employers to glean information about an employee’s medical history from family obituaries, or to inquire why an employee missed work to care for a sick relative under the Family Medical Leave Act. However, it will now be illegal to use this information to somehow penalize the employee.
DISCOVER: Top 100 Stories of 2008 #29: A New Law Bans Genetic Discrimination
80beats: NYC Uses DNA to Indict Suspects to Be Named Later
80beats: Genetic Testing of African Refugees Raises Outcry From Scientists
80beats: DNA Sampling of Innocent-Until-Proven-Guilty People Is on the Rise
Image: flickr / IRRI Images
In an Italian court, a murderer has just had his sentence reduced because the judge agreed that the man’s genes predisposed him to violent behavior.
Abdelmalek Bayout, an Algerian immigrant to Italy, admitted to stabbing and killing Walter Felipe Novoa Perez, a Colombian, when the two men got in a fight over the kohl eye make-up that Bayout was wearing. At trial, the defense team argued that Bayout was mentally ill at the time of the murder; the judge agreed that his psychiatric condition was a mitigating factor, and gave him a reduced sentence of 9 years. But at an appeal hearing, Bayout’s lawyers argued that his sentence should be shortened further based not just on psychiatric evaluations, but also brain scans and genetic testing.