Biologist Shoukhrat Mitalipov is famous—and controversial--in the world of cutting-edge fertility treatments. A decade ago, he pioneered mitochondrial replacement therapy, paving the way for the world's first "three-parent" babies to be born free of a devastating inherited disease.
He sees his work toward embryo gene therapy as not only moral, but necessary.
In 2017, he shocked the world again when his group at Oregon Health and Science University became the first to repair a genetic mutation causing heart disease in dozens of human embryos. The embryos were later destroyed a part of the experiment; current policy in the U.S. prohibits such research from moving into clinical trials.
And that policy doesn't look like it's going to change anytime soon, despite recent political wavering. Last month, a House subcommittee dropped the ban that has blocked the Food and Drug Administration since 2015 from considering any clinical trials of genetically altered embryos intended to create a baby. The move raised the hopes of supporters who want to see such research move forward and angered critics who feel that the science is getting ahead of the ethics. But yesterday, a House committee decided to restore the ban on gene-edited babies after all.
As for Mitalipov, he told leapsmag that he sees his work toward embryo gene therapy as not only moral, but necessary. This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
What motivates you to pursue this line of research, even though it is highly controversial?
It's my expertise, I'm an embryologist. We study early development in humans -- sperm, egg, and the first five days of development -- and try to use our knowledge to treat human diseases, particularly in that early stage. This is how IVF started, as a treatment for infertility. It's a very successful cell therapy treatment, with millions of children born. [Now the idea is] to actually to use this IVF platform not as much to treat infertility, but also to treat heritable genetic diseases, because this is a very important stage when gametes from either dad or mom will transmit mutations. This is the bottleneck where we could actually interfere and repair that mutation.
Many people are hesitant to support embryo editing because of "designer babies," yet polls do show that Americans are more open to embryo editing for the purpose of disease prevention. Where should society draw a line?
Yeah, I agree with most Americans that we don't have to edit -- meaning you could make all kind of changes. Instead we do gene repair, which is a therapeutic application.
Gene repair is quite different than gene editing. It involves [focusing on] already known disease-causing mutations and how we can turn them back to normal.
Thousands of gene mutations cause human diseases, like Crohn's, for example, or mutations causing cancer, heart disease. These are well-described, well-studied cause-and-effect diseases and we need to do something about it because otherwise it's impossible to treat once the mutation is already passed to a child.
Early intervention is the best in any disease, but in genetics, "early" means you have to do it at the time of fertilization. That's when we are dealing with one copy of the mutation or maybe two, versus when you have a whole body with billions of cells in solid tissues that we cannot really access and target. So this is the most efficient way of preventing thousands and thousands of genetic diseases. I understand that we have to make sure that it's very safe, of course, and efficient as well. But at the same time, I think this is the future. We have to work toward developing these technologies.
"If we continue banning the research everywhere and not funding it, maybe 100 years will not be enough."
What's your opinion of Dr. He Jiankui and the Chinese CRISPR'ed babies?
This is a case where he was doing gene editing, not gene repair. He hasn't corrected anything, he induced a mutation to normal human genes, hoping that this would somehow confer resistance to HIV, which is still unclear.
I think such straightforward editing is unacceptable specifically for human embryos. He's approach has also never been tested in an animal model. That's why the reaction from the public and scientists was very negative, because this is the case where the doctor does this without any expertise in this area, without knowing probably much about what he is doing, and he acquired it without any oversights, which is troubling. And of course, it negatively affects the legitimate research that is going on in some labs.
What might the future of embryo gene therapy look like?
Hopefully in 10 years from now, thousands and thousands of families that know they carry germline mutations…could go through IVF and we would correct it, and they could have healthy children.
Right now, we have some tools. We cannot correct, but we can select. So what happens is the parents become pregnant and then at about three months along, we can biopsy the amniotic fluid and say, "Hey unfortunately you passed on this mutation." And that means this child, if it's born, will be affected, so we give parents a choice of terminating the pregnancy.
Or we could do it much earlier, so parents go to the IVF clinic where we retrieve about ten eggs, after stimulating a woman's ovaries. Each of them will be fertilized so we have ten embryos that develop. We have a five-day window where we can keep them in the lab. And we basically reap a few cells, we do a biopsy from each of these ten, and we say, "Hey embryo number 1 and number 4 are not mutant, but the others are."
Then we can take these two and the other eight usually will be thrown away. That's the technology that we have now. Some ethicists argue on religious grounds that we have this selection technology available, so why do we need germline gene therapy [i.e. repairing the disease-causing mutations in an embryo]?
I don't understand the moral argument there, because all the available technology is based on selective destruction of the embryo.
With [IVF gene therapy], we will take ten embryos and every embryo we'll make healthy because we can get rid of the mutations. How could embryo destruction be morally superior?
How long do you think it will take for this technology to be available to prospective parents?
It depends how many legitimate labs with expertise can get into this field and resolve all the scientific questions. If we continue banning the research everywhere and not funding it, maybe 100 years will not be enough.
So far, I think that my lab is the only one legitimately working on it. But we would like five, 10, maybe 100 labs in this country and Europe really working. Because we have scientific challenges that we need to resolve before we could say, "Hey now we know how to correct [a given mutation] and now this could be efficient, and there are no side effects or very little." And then we could say, "Okay, I think we've done everything we could in petri dishes and in animals, and now we are ready to transplant this embryo in a patient and see what happens."
"There's just no way you could sink your head into the sand and say, 'Oh, we just ban it and then hopefully everything will go away.'"
Does banning emerging technology actually work?
Banning it usually means it will leak out to a gray area where there's no regulation and many private IVF clinics will just use it while it is still premature. So I think we have to regulate the clinical testing. There's just no way you could sink your head into the sand and say, "Oh, we just ban it and then hopefully everything will go away." That's not going to happen.
If this technology does become feasible and legal in the future, do you think that more and more couples will choose IVF and gene therapy versus the natural method of rolling the dice?
As sequencing technology is becoming available, like 23andMe, more and more parents will realize what kind of mutations they carry. And if your spouse carries the same mutation on the same locus, now you have very high chance of transmitting it. Most of the time today, we find out these families carry it once they have one or two children with that condition.
Of course, parents can just do it naturally in the bedroom and have a chance of transmitting or not transmitting mutations, but hopefully eventually we can say, "Hey, because of your condition, you don't want to play this Russian Roulette. Let's just do IVF." And hopefully the government will cover that kind of treatment because right now IVF is not covered in most states. And we do this therapy and then they have a healthy child.
We have 10,000 different mutations in the human population. That means probably billions of people carry mutations. And unless they go through this gene therapy through IVF, they will keep transmitting them. And we're going to keep having millions and millions of children with diseases. We have to do something about it.
On the morning of April 12, 1955, newsrooms across the United States inked headlines onto newsprint: the Salk Polio vaccine was "safe, effective, and potent." This was long-awaited news. Americans had limped through decades of fear, unaware of what caused polio or how to cure it, faced with the disease's terrifying, visible power to paralyze and kill, particularly children.
The announcement of the polio vaccine was celebrated with noisy jubilation: church bells rang, factory whistles sounded, people wept in the streets. Within weeks, mass inoculation began as the nation put its faith in a vaccine that would end polio.
Today, most of us are blissfully ignorant of child polio deaths, making it easier to believe that we have not personally benefited from the development of vaccines. According to Dr. Steven Pinker, cognitive psychologist and author of the bestselling book Enlightenment Now, we've become blasé to the gifts of science. "The default expectation is not that disease is part of life and science is a godsend, but that health is the default, and any disease is some outrage," he says.
The Rise and Fall of Public Trust<p>When the polio vaccine was released in 1955, "we were nearing an all-time high point in public trust," says Matt Baum, Harvard Kennedy School professor and lead author of <a href="http://www.kateto.net/covid19/COVID19%20CONSORTIUM%20REPORT%2013%20TRUST%20SEP%202020.pdf" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"><u>several</u></a> <a href="https://shorensteincenter.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/09/COVID19-CONSORTIUM-REPORT-14-MISINFO-SEP-2020.pdf" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"><u>reports</u></a> measuring public trust and vaccine confidence. Baum explains that the U.S. was experiencing a post-war boom following the Allied triumph in WWII, a popular Roosevelt presidency, and the rapid innovation that elevated the country to an international superpower.</p><p> The 1950s witnessed the emergence of nuclear technology, a space program, and unprecedented medical breakthroughs, adds Emily Brunson, Texas State University anthropologist and co-chair of the Working Group on Readying Populations for COVID-19 Vaccine. "Antibiotics were a game changer," she states. While before, people got sick with pneumonia for a month, suddenly they had access to pills that accelerated recovery. </p><p>During this period, science seemed to hold all the answers; people embraced the idea that we could "come to know the world with an absolute truth," Brunson explains. Doctors were portrayed as unquestioned gods, so Americans were primed to trust experts who told them the polio vaccine was safe. </p>
The Shift in How We Consume Information<p>In the 1950s, the media created an informational consensus. The fundamental ideas the public consumed about the state of the world were unified. "People argued about the best solutions, but didn't fundamentally disagree on the factual baseline," says Baum. Indeed, the messaging around the polio vaccine was centralized and consistent, led by President Roosevelt's successful <a href="https://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/EJ978264.pdf" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"><u>March of Dimes crusade</u></a>. People of lower socioeconomic status with limited access to this information were <a href="https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1551508/?page=3" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"><u>less likely to have confidence</u></a> in the vaccine, but most people consumed <a href="https://www.c-span.org/video/?506891-1/a-special-report-polio" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"><u>media that assured them</u></a> of the vaccine's safety and <a href="https://www.cbsnews.com/news/the-salk-polio-vaccine-greatest-public-health-experiment-in-history/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"><u>mobilized them</u></a> to receive it. </p><p>Today, the information we consume is no longer centralized—in fact, just the opposite. "When you take that away, it's hard for people to know what to trust and what not to trust," Baum explains. We've witnessed an increase in polarization and the technology that makes it easier to give people what they want to hear, reinforcing the human tendencies to vilify the other side and reinforce our preexisting ideas. When information is engineered to further an agenda, each choice and risk calculation made while navigating the COVID-19 pandemic <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/2020/12/19/opinion/sunday/coronavirus-science.html?referringSource=articleShare" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"><u>is deeply politicized</u></a>. </p><p>This polarization maps onto a rise in socioeconomic inequality and economic uncertainty. These factors, associated with a sense of lost control, prime people to embrace misinformation, explains Baum, especially when the situation is difficult to comprehend. "The beauty of conspiratorial thinking is that it provides answers to all these questions," he says. Today's insidious fragmentation of news media accelerates the circulation of mis- and disinformation, reaching more people faster, regardless of veracity or motivation. In the case of vaccines, skepticism around their origin, safety, and motivation is intensified. </p><p>Alongside the rise in polarization, Pinker says "the emotional tone of the news has gone downward since the 1940s, and journalists consider it a professional responsibility to cover the negative." Relentless focus on everything that goes wrong further erodes public trust and paints a picture of the world getting worse. "Life saved is not a news story," says Pinker, but perhaps it should be, he continues. "If people were more aware of how much better life was generally, they might be more receptive to improvements that will continue to make life better. These improvements don't happen by themselves."</p>
The Future Depends on Vaccine Confidence<p>So far, the U.S. has been unable to mitigate the catastrophic effects of the pandemic through social distancing, testing, and contact tracing. President Trump has <a href="https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/bob-woodward-rage-book-trump/2020/09/09/0368fe3c-efd2-11ea-b4bc-3a2098fc73d4_story.html" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"><u>downplayed the effects and threat of the virus</u></a>, <a href="https://www.washingtonpost.com/outlook/2020/07/14/cdc-directors-trump-politics/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"><u>censored experts and scientists</u></a>, <a href="https://www.theatlantic.com/science/archive/2020/06/america-giving-up-on-pandemic/612796/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"><u>given up on containing the spread</u></a>, and <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/2020/09/16/world/covid-coronavirus.html" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"><u>mobilized his base to protest masks</u></a>. The Trump Administration failed to devise a national plan, so our national plan has defaulted to hoping for the <a href="https://www.politico.com/news/2020/08/26/nation-of-miracles-pence-coronavirus-vaccine-rnc-402949" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"><u>"miracle" of a vaccine</u></a>. And they are "something of a miracle," Pinker says, describing vaccines as "the most benevolent invention in the history of our species." In record-breaking time, three vaccines have arrived. But their impact will be weakened unless we achieve mass vaccination. As Brunson notes, "The technology isn't the fix; it's people taking the technology."</p><p> Significant challenges remain, including facilitating widespread access and supporting on-the-ground efforts to allay concerns and build trust with <a href="https://www.newyorker.com/news/daily-comment/african-american-resistance-to-the-covid-19-vaccine-reflects-a-broader-problem" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"><u>specific populations with historic reasons for distrust</u></a>, says Brunson. Baum predicts continuing delays as well as deaths from other causes that will be linked to the vaccine. </p><p> Still, there's every reason for hope. The new administration "has its eyes wide open to these challenges. These are the kind of problems that are amenable to policy solutions if we have the will," Baum says. He forecasts widespread vaccination by late summer and a bounce back from the economic damage, a "Good News Story" that will bolster vaccine acceptance in the future. And Pinker reminds us that science, medicine, and public health have greatly extended our lives in the last few decades, a trend that can only continue if we're willing to roll up our sleeves. </p>
Imagine this scenario: you get an annoying cough and a bit of a fever. When you wake up the next morning you lose your sense of taste and smell. That sounds familiar, so you head to a doctor's office for a Covid test, which comes back positive.
Your next step? An anti-Covid nasal spray of course, a "trickster drug" that will clear the once-dangerous and deadly virus out of the body. The drug works by tricking the coronavirus with decoy receptors that appear to be just like those on the surface of our own cells. The virus latches onto the drug's molecules "thinking" it is breaking into human cells, but instead it flushes out of your system before it can cause any serious damage.
This may sounds like science fiction, but several research groups are already working on such trickster coronavirus drugs, with some candidates close to clinical trials and possibly even becoming available late this year. The teams began working on them when the pandemic arrived, and continued in lockdown.
Biochemist David Baker, pictured in his lab at the University of Washington.