Editing Along Ethical Boundaries

When Yoshizumi Ishino and his colleagues from Osaka University discovered an odd DNA sequence of E. coli in 1987, they had no idea what they had stumbled upon. The sequences were palindromic — reading the same forward and backward — but the scientists didn’t understand their function. They made note of the oddity in their completed study.

Fast forward a few years later, and researchers find that the sequence allows bacteria to prevent viral infections. When the bacterium detects the presence of virus DNA, it produces an RNA that matches that of the virus. When this sequence finds its target within the virus, the target DNA is cut and the virus is disabled. By harnessing this natural technique, researchers realized they could precisely cut any type of DNA and conduct specific genome editing. This would have a direct impact on genetic disease therapies, effectively providing a tool kit to fix mutated genes.

“It’s a huge argument that basic, fundamental science needs to be funded. This was a study to see how bacteria deal with viruses, with no thought that it would have any human-health implications,” says Terry Magnuson, geneticist and UNC Vice Chancellor for Research. “It turned out to be probably one of the most revolutionary findings that has ever happened.”

Commercially available since 2012, CRISPR-Cas9 (CRISPR) edits genes by cutting DNA and letting natural processes repair those divides. This allows scientists to add, remove, or alter particular parts of an organism’s genome. Think of it as a geneticist’s “copy and paste” tool. More precise and inexpensive than previous genome engineering, the attributes that make it widespread in the scientific community also expedite the need for ethical consensus among users.

“What happens when the preventive interventions you imagine raise the same kinds of ethical questions that enhancements do?” asks Eric Juengst, director of the UNC Center for Bioethics. “Questions about equal access, effects on the downstream generations, and effects on what it means to be human.”

Juengst explores these and other ethical quandaries as they relate to this gene-editing tool. His work focuses on research ethics — questions raised by new advances in science and technology. He and his colleague, Jean Cadigan, are leading a project that will survey scientists about the professional and social factors that shape the trajectories of using CRISPR in preventive human genome editing, as well as analyzing national and international policy.

Fortunately, this isn’t completely new territory for bioethicists, researchers, and policymakers. Genome engineering has been around for decades. Methods like homologous recombination, developed by Nobel laureate and UNC’s own Oliver Smithies, have prompted ethical discussions time and time again.

Most agree upon the implications behind this technology and the need to proceed with caution. If used responsibly, though, CRISPR can forever alter the way scientists study genes.

“CRISPR’s ability to change the way research is done is comparable to the electron microscope — everybody depends on it now for all kinds of research,” Juengst says. “That’s the sort of impact that this technique could have on basic [science] research.”

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Editing Along Ethical Boundaries

When Yoshizumi Ishino and his colleagues from Osaka University discovered an odd DNA sequence of E. coli in 1987, they had no idea what they had stumbled upon. The sequences were palindromic — reading the same forward and backward — but the scientists didn’t understand their function. They made note of the oddity in their completed study.

Fast forward a few years later, and researchers find that the sequence allows bacteria to prevent viral infections. When the bacterium detects the presence of virus DNA, it produces an RNA that matches that of the virus. When this sequence finds its target within the virus, the target DNA is cut and the virus is disabled. By harnessing this natural technique, researchers realized they could precisely cut any type of DNA and conduct specific genome editing. This would have a direct impact on genetic disease therapies, effectively providing a tool kit to fix mutated genes.

“It’s a huge argument that basic, fundamental science needs to be funded. This was a study to see how bacteria deal with viruses, with no thought that it would have any human-health implications,” says Terry Magnuson, geneticist and UNC Vice Chancellor for Research. “It turned out to be probably one of the most revolutionary findings that has ever happened.”

Commercially available since 2012, CRISPR-Cas9 (CRISPR) edits genes by cutting DNA and letting natural processes repair those divides. This allows scientists to add, remove, or alter particular parts of an organism’s genome. Think of it as a geneticist’s “copy and paste” tool. More precise and inexpensive than previous genome engineering, the attributes that make it widespread in the scientific community also expedite the need for ethical consensus among users.

“What happens when the preventive interventions you imagine raise the same kinds of ethical questions that enhancements do?” asks Eric Juengst, director of the UNC Center for Bioethics. “Questions about equal access, effects on the downstream generations, and effects on what it means to be human.”

Juengst explores these and other ethical quandaries as they relate to this gene-editing tool. His work focuses on research ethics — questions raised by new advances in science and technology.

Fortunately, this isn’t completely new territory for bioethicists, researchers, and policymakers. Genome engineering has been around for decades. Methods like homologous recombination, developed by Nobel laureate and UNC’s own Oliver Smithies, have prompted ethical discussions time and time again.

Most agree upon the implications behind this technology and the need to proceed with caution. If used responsibly, though, CRISPR can forever alter the way scientists study genes.

“CRISPR’s ability to change the way research is done is comparable to the electron microscope — everybody depends on it now for all kinds of research,” Juengst says. “That’s the sort of impact that this technique could have on basic [science] research.”

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UNC Researchers Develop PFAS Resin

PFAS, or per-and polyfluoroalkyl substances, are byproducts in the production of everyday items like Teflon, food packaging, and stain-resistant fabrics. Over the course of decades, these chemicals have made their way into drinking water sources around the world. UNC-Chapel Hill environmental engineer Orlando Coronell and chemist Frank Leibfarth have developed a filtration resin that has thus far been successful in removing most PFAS from water.

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Flocking to the Coast

After driving 170 miles, a caravan of UNC undergraduate students enters the Pocosin Wildlife Refuge. Passing just beyond the edge of the reserve, they spot what they’ve traveled hours for — tens of thousands of tundra swans and snow geese.

The students jump out of the cars, eyes on the sky and their mouths agape, and are greeted by the thunderous chorus of up to 50,000 birds. Skyward, they can see a seemingly endless stream of swans and geese flocking towards the field in front of them.

UNC biologist Allen Hurlbert stands in front of his class. Suddenly, a few thousand birds swoop into the air, the flock twisting and turning. Like a conductor leading a great symphony, Hurlbert throws up his arms and revels in the sight.

The stop at the refuge is just one of many throughout the weekend. The students are part of an avian biology class, led by Hurlbert and fellow UNC biologist Keith Sockman. Through lectures, students learn about bird biology, physiology, anatomy, and evolution. This teaching is then reinforced by bird watching trips to places like Mason Farm Biological Reserve, Morehead City, Beaufort, and the Outer Banks. Getting students in the field is a priority within the course, allowing them to see their lectures in action.

“Biology is the study of life, that’s the definition,” Sockman says. “To study life, to some extent you have to expose yourself to the natural elements to really understand it and appreciate it. Just reading about it or seeing pictures can never replace that aspect of the education.”

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Coronavirus Drug Shows Promise at UNC

 

UNC researchers are doing their part in the fight against the coronavirus that causes COVID-19. Ralph Baric, an epidemiologist in the Gillings School of Global Public health, heads a lab testing a broad spectrum antiviral drug called remdesivir.

As of now, there is no FDA approved drug on the market to prevent any human coronavirus or treat associated diseases like COVID-19. “So, basically we have no weapons in our arsenal,” says Tim Sheahan, a virologist in Baric’s lab.

Six years ago, the lab partnered with the biopharmaceutical company Gilead Sciences, Inc. Their goal was testing the company’s antiviral drugs to curb emerging viral diseases often overlooked by big pharmaceutical companies, says Sheahan.

Coronaviruses were of particular interest. Fast forward to today, and the intravenous drug remdesivir could potentially be a relief to this global pandemic. Just like broad spectrum antibiotics — which can cure a wide range of bacterial infections — a broad spectrum antiviral like remdesivir can work against genetically distinct viruses.

In animal and cell models of SAR and MERS coronavirus diseases, researchers have prevented infection and also diminished associated diseases during an ongoing infection. Sheahan says the drug has worked against every coronavirus they’ve tested so far, including the one that causes COVID-19.

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The Frog Family

As the school year draws to a close, thousands of families across the country flood airports and highways — off to visit relatives, theme parks, and waterways in celebration of the start of summer.

David and Karin Pfennig and their two daughters, Elsa and Katrina, spend three days crossing the country by car in search of more than a little R&R. They’re in pursuit of a unique amphibian.

The Pfennigs study evolution. More specifically, the UNC biologists research how spadefoot toads’ environment and behavior influence how the species evolves.

While other families may be soaking up the sun somewhere on a crowded beach or exploring cheesy tourist traps, the Pfennigs are ankle-deep in a muddy pond — shoes kicked off and tiny nets in hand —just the way they like it.

“It’s really fun,” Karin says. “The girls help with the research and really enjoy it, they come up with their own projects or go out and do their own natural history observations.”

While their younger daughter, Elsa, wants a career incorporating her passion for music, Katrina hopes to continue down the road her parents set forth in spadefoot research.

“I feel like we’re the luckiest people on the planet to get to work on this and have it be a family thing.”

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