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On genome editing Scientists, public need to discuss implications

Aaron Putzke not only teaches about and does research using genome editing with worms and zebra fish, but also seeks to inform and engage Whitworth University students and the community in discussing bio-ethics related to that technology.

Aaron Putzke works in lab with students.

However, it’s a long way from editing the genome of worm  with 959 cells or fish with millions of cells and complex brains, to editing human beings with trillions of cells, he said.

A recent meeting of scientists in Washington, D.C., recommended slowing down on human genome editing and doing more discussion. While genome editing can improve physical structure, cure diseases and fight cancer, there are many unknown impacts, he said. 

To invite discussion in the public and academic spheres, Whitworth University is hosting a Genetic Engineering Symposium on “Editing the Genome: Should We Alter the Future of Humankind?”  It will be held at 7 p.m., Monday, Oct. 24, at the Weyerhaeuser Hall.  Featured speakers are Nigel Cameron, Meaghan O’Keefe and Andrew Scharenberg.

Nigel, president of the Center for Policy on Emerging Technologies, will discuss ways to create conversation and influence regulations.

Meaghan, who teaches at the theological department of the University of California, will focus on the relationship of technology, law, policies, language, religion and bioethics. 

Andrew, who is from the University of Washington and Seattle Children’s Hospital, will address uses of genome editing technology during symposium.

Every day there is something new added to the discussion and the complexity, said Aaron, who appreciates that Whitworth’s Robinson Science Center, built in 2011, allows scientists there to do “fascinating research.”

Genome editing is legal, but there are few, if any, state, federal and global regulations, especially about human embryos. Congress gives no federal funding to genome editing in human embryos, so scientists rely on grants from private foundations or bio-tech companies.

With no federal funding, there is no federal oversight from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the Food and Drug Administration, or the Environmental Protection Authority.

“If we edit genes of a human disease, we may cure people and prevent it in future generations,” said Aaron,  “The process is not perfect, so what risks are we willing to take? What off-target effects might result?  If I change my DNA, will it make me susceptible to another disease?” he asked.  “Everyone is responsible: individuals, scientists and doctors.”

“Can we modify DNA of an unborn person to cure a disease?  It raises different questions about rights of the unborn,” Aaron said.

“What are responsibilities related to bringing a genetically modified person into the world?  What if I could modify characteristics to make people look different, be smarter or be better athletes?  Engineering babies could lead to eugenics.  Who would decide what the good and bad traits are?” he asked. 

“There are social and medical implications.  For example, if it’s possible to engineer phenomenal athletes is it fair for them to compete in the Olympics?” he added.

Aaron wants people informed so they can write politicians about policy. There could be groundbreaking findings.  Billions of dollars are at stake over patents to use the technology, Aaron said.

Twenty years ago, scientists found that bacteria defend themselves against viral attacks that hijack the bacteria and use it as a host to make more viruses.  The bacteria take a chunk of the viral genome and memorize it to recognize later and attack the virus.

“It’s like our immune system memorizing what has attacked us, so we fight it off,” he said.

With fish in the lab, Aaron and students find and change DNA in the genome.  The female lays eggs. Males drop sperm over them.  A fertilized egg develops externally, so it can be observed. 

It begins as one cell with a yolk.  Under a microscope, students stick a needle into it and inject components for a genetic mutation.  If they do it before the cell divides, the change is in every cell, including cells that make eggs and sperm, so it passes on.

It costs less than $100, so it’s economically doable, Aaron said.

Testing in the presence and absence of the mutation makes it possible to observe defects in brain development. They can be seen in two days, because early cells are transparent.  If the brain is not normal, students can investigate what went wrong. Once students raise a generation in three to five months, the mutation enters the next generation. 

“What are the ethics of our study?” Aaron asked.  “Having no nervous system, a fish embryo feels no pain, but we still need to be mindful of the power to intentionally mutate a living genome.”

As research develops, he will have the studies reviewed by peers and published so other scientists can learn from them.

The research is currently funded by a three-year $240,000 grant from the M.J. Murdock Trust, shared with Reed and Lewis and Clark colleges.  He has another $58,000 grant from Murdock and is applying for grants from the National Institute of Health and National Science Foundation.

While scientists study basic processes in nature, others apply findings to translate them into a cure for cancer or Alzheimer’s.

“I’m interested in finding how life works,” he said. 

“There are parallels between a developing embryo and tumor formation.  Young cells in an embryo grow rapidly, like cancer, but grow in a controlled manner.  Cancer is a normal cell that goes rogue and multiplies with no brakes. The more we understand it, the better we can treat cancer,” he said. 

“We need to discuss how to be proactive, not reactive, so we decide together what we should and shouldn’t do,” Aaron said.

For years, crops like corn and tomatoes have been modified to resist pesticides. Salmon are modified with growth hormones so they can go to market faster.

“Brief media reports may create fear about the safety of genetically modified food,” he said. “Whether we agree or disagree, we need to be competent to have a voice on use of a technology.”

Aaron earned an undergraduate degree in 1994 in biochemistry at Pepperdine in Malibu, Calif., and in 2003 completed graduate work in bio-molecular science and engineering at the University of California in Santa Barbara, where he first worked with worms.

He then studied zebra fish and cancer biology at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, and taught at Hope College in Holland, Mich., before coming to Whitworth in 2014.

He is one of six tenured faculty and three lab instructors who teach classes from introduction to biology with 220 students to pre-med and biology-major classes with 15 students.

Aaron, who grew up in a Lutheran church in Issaquah, attends New Horizons Community Church at Five Mile. His faith influences his interest in ethics and social justice, especially related to who has access to and how affordable are the technologies.

“Will we just cure the wealthy, not the poor?” he asked.

Other ethical and justice issues are about vulnerable people having a voice and  everyone being informed of the scientific and social consequences.

Part of concern about the human aspect means Aaron feels called to talk about genome editing so people understand it and can discuss it from a faith perspective.

“We need to decide together where we want to go with it and how to regulate it,” he said.

“We are on the cusp of exciting discoveries,” he said, but we must also consider long-term consequences.

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