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ASU researcher suggests broader public debate on gene modification

November 21, 2017

Super strong people. Elephants the size of house cats. Whippets with the build of pitbulls. Apples that don’t turn brown. With the CRISPRCRISPR is an acronym for Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats, which are the hallmark of a bacterial defense system that forms the basis for CRISPR-Cas9 genome editing technology. gene-editing technology, the possibilities are endless, but genetic modification has typically been considered the domain of scientists.

Then last week, gene modification went off the rails with news that self-proclaimed “biohacker” Josiah Zayner had just injected muscle cells into his forearm, making him the first person known to have edited his own DNA. He did it using a kit available online based on CRISPR.

Is Zayner’s self-experiment rogue science or the wave of the future? For answers, ASU Now turned to Arizona State University's Emma Frow, an assistant professor with a joint appointment in the School of Biological and Health Systems Engineering and the School for the Future of Innovation in Society. Her research focuses on standards and governance in contemporary life sciences, with a particular focus on synthetic biology. Frow says individuals like Zayner who choose to experiment on themselves are potentially putting their health and safety at risk, and she points to the need for a broader public debate about gene modification.

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Emma Frow

Question: Does anyone have any idea what is going to happen to Zayner (physically, that is)?

Answer: I don’t think we do. Zayner injected himself with DNA hoping to knock out a gene called myostatin that blocks muscle growth. His goal is to see increases in the amount of his forearm muscle over the next few months. Who knows whether this will happen. My guess is that his experiment is likely to be inconclusive.

The link between myostatin and muscle production has been well studied. For example, there’s a particularly beefy breed of cattle that naturally lacks myostatin. And an experiment was reported earlier in the year where scientists in China used CRISPR to knock the myostatin gene out of beagle embryos in order to produce extra-muscular dogs. Out of over 60 embryos they tried, they succeeded in completely knocking out the myostatin gene in two beagles. This tells you something about the challenge of getting CRISPR to work reliably.

Q: This isn’t like getting a tattoo or taking some weird new drug. Could alterations spread through his children, if he has any?

A: I don’t believe so. For a specific gene-editing change to pass on to Zayner’s children, it would have to happen in his germline cells (i.e. his sperm). Zayner injected himself in his forearm, with the intent of performing localized gene editing in his arm muscle cells. I don’t think we can say for sure exactly which cells in his body, if any, are likely to be edited, but the likelihood of any changes being passed to subsequent generations seems very slim.

Q: Could alterations be undone?

A: Because Zayner’s self-experiment is not confined to a very specific, controlled subset of cells, identifying exactly which cells (if any) have been edited will be difficult — and targeting exactly those cells to undo any edits even more challenging. This hasn’t been designed as a reversible experiment.

Q: What are problems with this that come to mind?

A: Zayner’s work is explicitly geared towards putting biotechnology in the hands of citizens, and his experiment points to the growing possibility of individuals experimenting on themselves with CRISPR technology. CRISPR gene-editing technology is still quite new, and there are several safety and efficacy questions that still need to be addressed. Individuals who choose to experiment on themselves are potentially putting their health and safety at risk.

More generally, Zayner’s provocative experiment points to the need for a broader public debate about how we want to make use of CRISPR gene editing as a society. Currently in the U.S., there are tighter regulations for biotechnology research funded with public funds than with private money. Zayner funds his work from private sources, and what he is doing is not illegal (not all countries would see this the same way). But it does point to a need for public discussion about whether and how we would like to see CRISPR gene editing evolve, and the kinds of uses for this technology we see as appropriate. 


Top image courtesy of Pixabay

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ASU real estate expert questions value of cutting housing benefits in House tax bill

November 21, 2017

The House of Representatives passed a long-promised tax-code overhaul last week, characterized by President Donald Trump and Republicans as a strategic move to spur the country’s economy.   

The legislation is part of an ongoing effort to reach an agreement on a sweeping tax-reform bill, which still has many hurdles to overcome. If ultimately passed, the 440-page legislation will affect corporate tax rates, health insurance, college loans, property taxes and home deductions. The latter has many economists and critics of the bill concerned that the impacts to the national and local real estate market could suppress home values and new home construction.

ASU Now spoke to Mark Stapp, director of the Center for Real Estate Theory and Practice at Arizona State University's W. P. Carey School of Business, to gain a better understand of the bill’s short- and long-term impacts. Among his observations of the bill: “It makes little sense and seems like another way to grab cash to make up the deficit.”

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Mark Stapp

Question: It has been stated by several sources, including Moody’s Investor Service, that the GOP tax-reform bill will make housing investment less alluring for mainstream Americans. Do you agree? And what would be the impact of something like this on the national market?

Answer: First, I don’t think it’s fair to say “housing investment.” Home ownership by occupants may be impacted. But this depends on the overall effect of changes to the tax laws; this is about affordability, and if the overall effect is a zero sum gain or loss, then I do not think it will impact in the long run. However, if the overall effect is to reduce net income after taxes, then yes, it will.

Decision making about home ownership for occupancy is not like investment decision making. There is a significant intrinsic and emotional value associated with home ownership.

Q: What would be the impact on housing and real estate in Arizona?

A: Pretty much the same result as nationally. That said, it might have a significant impact on new home sales in the short run.

Q: One of the criticisms of the bill is limiting mortgage-interest deduction in several ways. What would be the benefit to the IRS, and what would be the disadvantage to homeowners?

A: The benefit to the federal government is more revenue because there is a smaller cap on deductions. Again, disadvantage to homeowners is less deduction and thus potentially more income tax. This all depends on the overall effect of the proposed tax changes.

Q: It has been said the bill will discourage homeowners from moving less frequently because it requires residents to stay in their properties for five years to avoid sales taxes. Is this a good or bad thing?

A: Anything that hurts mobility is not good. This does just that. Labor markets require a highly mobile workforce. It makes little sense and seems like another way to grab cash to make up the deficit. It solves no problem that I’m aware of.


Top image courtesy of Pixabay