Immortality Inc: Regrowing Body Parts

https://i0.wp.com/images.gizmag.com/hero/lizardtails-2.jpgAnyone who has ever observed a lizard must not have failed to notice that they are capable of detaching their tails, and then regenerating them from scratch. This propensity for “spontaneous regeneration” is something that few organisms possess, and mammals are sadly not one of them. But thanks to a team of Arizona State University scientists, the genetic recipe behind this ability has finally been unlocked.

This breakthrough is a small part of a growing field of biomedicine that seeks to improve human health by tampering with the basic components (i.e. our DNA). The research, which was funded by grants from the National Institutes of Health and Arizona Biomedical Research Commission, also involved scientists from the University of Arizona College of Medicine, Translational Genomic Research Institute, and Michigan State University.

dna_cancerAccording to Prof. Kenro Kusumi, lead author of a paper on the genetic study, lizards are the most closely-related animals to humans that can regenerate entire appendages. They also share the same genetic language as us, so it’s theoretically possible that we could do what they do, if only we knew which genes to use and in what amounts. As Kusumi explains in the paper, which was published Aug. 20 in the journal PLOS ONE. :

Lizards basically share the same toolbox of genes as humans. We discovered that they turn on at least 326 genes in specific regions of the regenerating tail, including genes involved in embryonic development, response to hormonal signals, and wound healing.

Other animals, such as salamanders, frog tadpoles, and fish, can also regenerate their tails. During tail regeneration, they all turn on genes in what is called the ‘Wnt pathway’ — a process that is required to control stem cells in many organs such as the brain, hair follicles and blood vessel. However, lizards have a unique pattern of tissue growth that is distributed throughout the tail.

calico-header-640x353 It takes lizards more than 60 days to regenerate a functional tail — forming a complex regenerating structure with cells growing into different tissues at a number of sites along the tail. According to Katsumi, harnessing this would be a boon for medicine for obvious reasons:

Using next-generation technologies to sequence all the genes expressed during regeneration, we have unlocked the mystery of what genes are needed to regrow the lizard tail. By following the genetic recipe for regeneration that is found in lizards, and then harnessing those same genes in human cells, it may be possible to regrow new cartilage, muscle or even spinal cord in the future.

The researchers also hope their findings will also help repairing birth defects and treating diseases such as arthritis. Given time, and enough positive results, I think it would be fair to expect that Google’s Clinical Immortality subsidiary – known as Calico – will buy up all the necessary rights. Then, it shouldn’t be more than a decade before a gene treatments is produced that will allow for spontaneous regeneration and the elimination of degenerative diseases.

The age of post-mortal is looming people. Be scared/enthused!

Sources: kurzweil.net, gizmag.com

Patenting Genes: US Supreme Court Says No

dna_doublehelixLast week, in a landmark decision that is expected to have far-reaching consequences, the United States Supreme Court announced in a unanimous decision that no part of the human DNA sequence – or the DNA of any living organism – is patentable. This decision came after thirty years of patents being issued on genes for the sake of genetic research, and which was spurred on by recent developments, such as the publication of the human genome.

Specifically, the case came down to a claim made by Myriad Genetics, the company that discovered the BRCA-1 and BRCA-2 genetic mutations that can lead to higher incidences of breast cancer. They patented these sequences in the hopes of having a lucrative investment when it came to future screenings and treatments. But for many, this signaled that a line was being crossed, and the case went to court.

us_supremecourtFor critics of Myriad’s attempt to patent the genetic mutations, they claimed that this made screening often prohibitively expensive. Angelina Jolie was one such person, who drew attention to the fact that her mother – who died of breast cancer – and women like her would be unable to afford the treatment if Myriad got it’s way. Myriad fought back by saying that without the possibility of future financial gain, there would be no incentive for companies to sink money into searching for these genes.

In the end, the Supreme Court voted 9 to 0 that genes are products of nature and not human-made inventions, which makes them ineligible for a patent. For many, this decision has temporarily closed Pandora’s Box and prevented corporations from obtaining the right to carve up the human genome and lay claim to it, a process which many believed would lead to monopolies of gene treatments and the potential ownership of human beings themselves.

GMO_seedsOn the other hand, the court’s ruling did not apply to one other key issue: synthetic genes. Basically, genetic modifications that are made my companies for the sake of modifying foods, agricultural produce, and even animals are still up for grabs. And at least one major corporation is pretty pleased about this. In allowing for synthetic genes to remain a grey area, Monsanto is likely to continue seeking to patent its genetically-modified seeds.

Just over a month ago, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of the giant agribusiness in one of the most important lawsuits filed by the company in recent years. In essence, the court’s ruled that an Indiana soybean farmer was infringing on Monsanto’s soybean patent by buying the seeds from a nearby grain elevator and then saving them.

agribusinessOf the 144 lawsuits filed against 410 farmers and 56 small farm businesses throughout the U.S. in the past few years (according to the Center for Food Safety), this case was especially important. It essentially set the precedent that anyone selling genetically-modified grains had to pay royalties to the company responsible for their creation. This in turn has long-reaching implications which go far beyond agribusiness.

Though it is still a grey area, the legal battle over modified genes seems all but decided at this point. Whereas natural genes cannot be subject to patents, anything a company modifies in a lab already have been. But given the growth of skunkworks and biohacking labs around the world, there is still time for small operations and independent companies to get in on the action.

As time has shown, diversification is the natural enemy of monopolization. But by far the most important thing of all, whether it’s about patenting genes or modifying them for our use, is for people to remain informed on the issue. As long as people know what decisions are being made behind closed doors, they will have a shot at controlling the outcome.

Sources: fastcoexist.com, (2)

Selling Yourself: The Future of Advertising

DNA-1If you thought your world was already permeated enough by adspace, hang on to your hat! According to =researchers and geneticists, the age of genetic-based advertising is right around the corner, and is likely to be even more profitable than internet, television, radio or billboard ads ever were! Yes, in this brave new future, selling yourself will take on literal dimensions, with people signing over their genetic information and tailoring what ads they receive based on that very same thing.

Call it another unintended consequence of the Human Genome Project and ENCODE, which the latter of which recently finished cataloging the function of every part of the human genome. Or it could just be a case of advertising and the commercial industry making inroads, following the path traced by researchers and scientists in the hopes of finding the next place to saturate with ads.

dna_selfassemblyRegardless, geneticist Michael Schatz of the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory sums up the possibility as follows:

Today, it’s such a niche market, but there’s tremendous growth opportunities there. In the endgame, it’s certain [genetics is] going to become one of the factors that big retailers would consider, but I think that’s pretty far off.

But as it turns out, it may not be as far off as he thinks. Already, a Minneapolis-based startup named Miinome is building a platform that will help consumers control what offers they get from retailers based on their genetic makeup, and to possibly cash in on the value of their DNA by selling the data back to marketers and researchers.

Through an open API, Miinome plans to collect genetic and environmental data mined from social networks like Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn and run that through their proprietary algorithm to come up with a profile of you that’s richer than anything that exists on the internet today. Then, they will be able to infer what environmental factors and personal traits are likely to cause you concern, or gives rise to special needs.

dna-computingThese could something along the work-related stress and the problems associated with it – i.e. weight gain, hair loss, erectile dysfunction, etc. – and then recommend ads that would help the person address these. If a person so chooses to broadcast this kind of information to Miinome’s business partners, they could show you very targeted ads for weight loss supplements, hair care products, boner pills and anything else you might want.

The company, which is launching in closed beta this spring, will essentially be a repository and brokerage firm for your genetic information that will allow its members to choose what academic institutions, pharmaceutical companies or marketing firms can take a peek at which of their genes. Miinome, which boasts geneticist George Church and Autodesk’s Andrew Hessel as advisers, will essentially make money every time one of your traits is accessed by companies.

DNA-molecule2Whether you are for or against such an idea, you have to admit, it’s a pretty shrewd and sound business plan. In a company statement, Miinome CEO Paul Saarinen put forth the following mission statement:

We believe we can make your genetic information useful every day, not just when you’re sick. We’re the first member-controlled, portable human genomics marketplace.

Well, that’s one way to look at it. Another way would be to say that this is yet another invasion of people’s privacy, reaching beyond cookies and web-surfing habits to find a truly effective and intrusive way to spam them. Naturally, Saarinen also pointed out that everything will be opt-in and Miinome business partners won’t be able to get their hands on raw genetic data.

Still, one can expect privacy and human rights advocates to have something to say about this real soon!

 Source: Wired.com

Patenting Genes: New Questions over Property Rights

People walk in front of the Supreme Court building in WashingtonToday, in Washington DC, the US Supreme Court heard arguments made for and against the belief that the human genome can be claimed as intellectual property. For almost thirty years now, US authorities have been awarding patents on genes to universities and medical companies. But given the recent publication of the human genome, this practice could have far reaching consequences for human rights.

Ever since USC researchers published ENCODE – The Encyclopedia of DNA Elements Project – scientists and law-makers have been scrambling to determine what the next step in human genetics research will be. In addition to using the complete catalog of genetic information for the sake of bioresearch, medicine and programmable DNA structures, there are also legal issues that go back decades.

encodeFor example, if companies have the right to patent genes, what does that say about the human body? Do property rights extend to our mitochondrial DNA, or do the rights over a particular gene belong to those who discovered it, mapped its functions, or those who just plain planted their flag in it first? One of the most interesting aspects of the 21st century may be the extension of property wars and legal battles down to the cellular level…

Currently, researchers and private companies work to isolate genes in order to use them in tests for gene-related illnesses, and in emerging gene therapies. According to researchers at Weill Cornell Medical College in the US, patents now cover some 40% of the human genome, but that is expected to increase in the coming years, accounting for greater and greater swaths of human and other living creature’s DNA.Genes1This particular lawsuit, filed by the American Civil Liberties Union in conjunction with the Public Patent Foundation, relates to seven specific patents that were made on two human genes held by US firm Myriad Genetics. These genes are linked to breast and ovarian cancer, and Myriad has developed a test to look for mutations in these genes that may increase the risk of developing cancer.

The company argued that the genes patented were “isolated” by them, making them products of human ingenuity and therefore patentable. But of course, The ACLU rejected this argument, saying that genes are products of nature, and therefore can’t be patented under US or any other man-made law.

genesWithout a doubt, there concerns are grounded in what this could mean for future generations, if people themselves could be subject to patents simply because they carry the gene that a company holds the patent on. And who can blame them? With almost half of the stuff that makes our bodies tick belonging to private companies, how big of a stretch would it be for companies to effectively own a human being?

Alternately, if companies are not allowed to patent genes, what will this mean for medical and bio research? Will cures, treatments, and medical processes become a complete free for all, with no one holding any particular distribution rights or having their exclusive work recognized. And of course, this would have the effect of hurting a research or corporate firms bottom line. So you can expect them to have something to say about it!

It’s a new age, people, with patents and prospecting extending not only into space (with asteroids), but into the human genome as well. Predictable I suppose. As humanity began expanding its field of view, focusing on wider and more distant fields, as well as gaining a more penetrating and deeper understanding of how everything works, it was only a matter of time before we started squabbling over territory and boundaries again!

Sources: bbc.co.uk, reuters.com