The Week That Wasn't: CRISPR Trial, Interspecies Organs, Facebook Mind Reading

Dana Najjar


August 02, 2019

Welcome to The Week That Wasn't. Here are three trending stories we decided not to cover this week, and why.

First CRISPR Therapy for Sickle Cell

In a medical first, doctors have attempted to treat a patient with sickle cell disease (SCD) using CRISPR gene editing. The first patient in a study set to enroll up to 45 received an autologous transplant of modified cells this week.

The genetic red blood cell disorder affects approximately 100,000 Americans and is most prevalent in the African American community. Although there are a number of treatments for the symptoms of SCD, the only currently available cure is a bone marrow transplant for those who find a matched donor. The median life expectancy is around 45 years of age. Another gene-modifying therapy for SCD using a different method is also in development.

This is the first documented use of CRISPR to experimentally treat a genetic disease in the United States, according to National Public Radio's exclusive coverage, and has deservedly been making headlines around the world. Because the trial is just treating its first patient and there is no indication of how well the intervention will work, we chose not to cover it at this point. We'll be paying close attention to the results when they're published.

Attempt to Grow Human Organs in Rodents Allowed

Although CRISPR hasn't cured any genetic diseases yet, scientists have successfully used it in the lab to create mouse-rat and pig-human blastocyst chimeras, all in the hopes of eventually creating new sources of human organs for transplant. Now, a stem-cell scientist in Japan has received government approval to create hybrid mouse and rat embryos with human cells and bring them to term, a practice that was banned until very recently.

In the United States, the National Institutes of Health has had a moratorium on funding such work since 2015, but rumors that the ban might be lifted have been circulating for a few years.

The approval in Japan is a first step in a futuristic project, but there are still many ethical and technical hurdles ahead, according to an article published in Nature News. The researchers still need to work out how to modify the host embryo so that it doesn't grow its own version of the organ they're trying to replace with a human one. There's also a chance the human cells could spread beyond the organ the scientists intended to create. With so much basic science still to do, we didn't cover this story.

Brain-to-Text Decoding

The next big thing in hands-free communication isn't a better Alexa — it could be a machine that "lets people type by simply imagining themselves talking." That's what Facebook says is the long-term goal of its foray into brain-computer interfaces, for which it's supporting a research team at the University of California, San Francisco.

In an article published this week in Nature Communications, the team outlined their real-time decoding of a set of 24 predefined words and phrases from brain activity. A peer-reviewed publication is more than Elon Musk's recently publicized startup that is working on brain-machine interfaces has achieved, but the new work is still early, involving just three patients with epilepsy.

The dream of seamless thought-to-text decoding could be transformative for people with neurologic damage. But before raising hopes for a new clinical intervention, we will want to see the brain-computer interface system expand to do a lot more than recognize two dozen predetermined answers.

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