DARPA to Genetically Engineer Humans by Adding a 47th Chromosome


We’re no molecular biologists over here, but have you ever seen the sci-fi flick Gattaca?

In that 1997 film, society is structured around eugenics as people are bioengineered to be ‘perfect specimens’, and one’s entire life and position in the world is based on their genetics. Those conceived naturally without genetic screening are proclaimed “invalid” and only allowed menial jobs, despite the innate talents and skills they may possess. Alternately, the 2011 movie In Time portrays a dystopic future where humans are genetically programmed to stop aging at 25 and could live forever — so long as they earn enough “time credits” to afford to stay alive; the poor perish swiftly under an artificially skyrocketing cost of living that times out their clocks, while the rich who steer the technocracy are gaming the system and living indefinitely.

Such nightmare scenarios place obvious restrictions on the natural right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

Back in reality, alarmingly similar ends are being pursued.

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DARPA, the Department of Defense’s research arm, has just put out a new solicitation for a project called, “Advanced Tools for Mammalian Genome Engineering” on the government’s Federal Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) site.

This project isn’t just for engineering any mammal’s genome, however; it’s specifically for the bioengineering of humans.

The proposal explains the project’s details:

The ability to deliver exogenous DNA to mammalian cell lines is a fundamental tool in the development of advanced therapeutics, vaccines, and cellular diagnostics, as well as for basic biological and biomedical research… The successful development of technologies for rapid introduction of large DNA vectors into human cell lines will enable the ability to engineer much more complex functionalities into human cell lines than are currently possible.

The project’s stated objective is to “improve the utility of Human Artificial Chromosomes (HACs).” (Gallows humor jokes about how DARPA wants to literally HAC(k) you can be made at any time.) A Wikipedia entry explains in relatively plain language what a HAC is and what it does:

A human artificial chromosome (HAC) is a microchromosome that can act as a new chromosome in a population of human cells. That is, instead of 46 chromosomes, the cell could have 47 with the 47th being very small, roughly 6-10 megabases in size, and able to carry new genes introduced by human researchers.

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So DARPA and its team of associated scientists want to introduce an entirely new 47th chromosome into human genetics as a vector platform for inserting bio-alterations and wholesale genetic “improvements” into our DNA.

The agency hopes that development of a new chromosome will allow a solution to the limitations of current “state-of-the-art” gene transfer technologies (including plasmids, adenovirus-, lentivirus-, and retrovirus-vectors, cDNA, and minigene constructs). The proposal explains that existing approaches must be improved due to known drawbacks in the scientists’ failure to control their results, causing a few minor major problems:

These include random DNA insertion into the host genome, variation in stable integration sites between cell lines, variation in the copy number and expression level of DNA that is delivered, limitations on the number and size of DNA constructs that can be delivered, and immunological responses to foreign DNA.

Yet these techniques are already in use? How reassuring.

Ever hear the term ‘playing God’? Scientists who work in these fields not only refer to themselves as “genome engineers,” but “biological designers” in their journal articles. This January 2013 piece in the journal Molecular Systems Biology introduces the topic with a chilling description:

The phrase ‘genome-scale engineering’ invokes a future in which organisms are custom designed to serve humanity. Yet humans have sculpted the genomes of domesticated plants and animals for generations. Darwin’s contemporary William Youatt described selective breeding as ‘that which enables the agriculturalist, not only to modify the character of his flock, but to change it altogether. It is the magician’s wand, by means of which he may summon into life whatever form and mold he pleases’ (Youatt, 1837).

It’s impossible to even compile an accurate listing of all the potential slippery slopes at play here, yet it is clear that this entails a momentous grasp at controlling life, which not only empowers an already dictatorial technocratic elite, but emboldens a delusional and destructive cadre intent on overwriting the existing species now on Earth.

Watch the 30-second promo video below where an investment firm (with their creepy all seeing eye logo) nonchalantly projects that within 50 years, science will displace natural life by a factor of 50-to-1 with artificial lab-created species – including plants, animals, humans, bacteria and viruses.
Fidelity Investments Forecasts the Creation of 50x More Synthetic Biological Species than Known Natural Species.

 

Source: Nature. 

Pentagon’s giant blood serum bank may provide PTSD clues.


The massive repository of genetic material is poised to advance research—just don’t bother asking for your samples back.

Nestled inside a generic-looking office building here in suburban Maryland, down the hall from cable-provider Comcast, sits the largest blood serum repository in the world.

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Seven freezers, each roughly the size of a high school basketball court, are stacked high with row upon row of small cardboard boxes containing tubes of yellow or pinkish blood serum, a liquid rich in antibodies and proteins, but devoid of cells. The freezers hover at –30 degrees Celsius—cold enough to make my pen dry up and to require that workers wear protective jumpsuits, hats, gloves and face masks. Four more empty freezers, which are now kept at room temperature, await future samples.

The bank of massive freezers—and its contents—is maintained by the Department of Defense (DoD). The cache of government-owned serum may provide unique insights into the workings of various maladies when linked with detailed information on service members’ demographics, deployment locations and health survey data. New research projects tapping the precious serum could lead to breakthroughs in some of the hottest topics in military research—including the hunt for biomarkers for post-traumatic stress disorder and suicide risk. But DoD’s policy of keeping its samples in perpetuity—even after troops leave the force—could raise a few eyebrows.

From humble beginnings

The military started collecting serum samples 28 years ago as a by-product of its HIV surveillance. Since then serum has been routinely collected from leftover blood from HIV tests or standard post-deployment health check-ups and then frozen for future reference. Now the Department of Defense Serum Repository (DoDSR) has swelled to include 55.5 million samples of serum from 10 million individuals—mostly service members, veterans or military applicants. The armed forces use DoDSR for general health surveillance to track infectious diseases and to shape health policies. But the repository is also ripe for targeted research programs.

Annually the facility may field as many as 100 requests to use some of the serum from that icy reserve. Sixty-two requests received the green light to sample from DoDSR last year, half of them for research and half for clinical testing of an individual patient’s samples. In the past five years DoDSR has filled 278 such requests. But not all DoDSR uses are medical: they have also played a role in criminal proceedings, serving as a reference point for female victims in two rape cases, says Mark Rubertone, who oversees the DoDSR. “The value of the specimens does not go away, even after [service members] leave the military,” he says.

Even with the promise of ongoing health surveillance and potential research that would benefit the force, not all contributors to the repository are enthusiastic about—or even necessarily aware of—their participation. DoDSR does not discard serum samples, even if individual service members or military applicants request that their samples be removed. Fewer than 10 individuals have asked for the removal of their samples, according to Rubertone. But the requests are likely rare because service members and their families are not actively aware of the serum, even though they may know that their blood—in one form or another—is on file, Rubertone acknowledges. Thus far, no one has successfully retrieved his or her biological materials from the facility.

A RAND Corp. report on the facility, published in 2010 (after an earlier draft was revealed via Wikileaks), pointed out that nearly 900,000 samples in the repository were not from active duty or reservist personnel—they were from so-called “dependent beneficiaries” in service members’ families. Those numbers have since grown, to a “couple million” samples, according to the DoDSR count. The biological material from military family members often ends up in the repository after beneficiaries receive pregnancy care or visit a sexually transmitted infection clinic. The data accompanying those samples are more sparse and so the serum specimens are not as useful for studies, although they are still kept in the repository. Another 4 percent of the samples come from civilians who applied for military service but did not join.

Research payoffs

Researchers who draw on the serum bank note that the wealth of longitudinal data from DoDSR enables cutting-edge research. Take, for example, several projects that are searching for biomarkers of post-traumatic stress disorder. By matching up pre- and post-deployment DNA from individuals who developed PTSD and also comparing the genetic material with DNA from a control population, researchers are hoping to discern clues about when and how PTSD becomes apparent at a genetic level, impacting the DNA building blocks via DNA methylation and perhaps the silencing of certain genes. Related work is also focusing on microRNA—a small, noncoding RNA molecule—that helps regulate numerous biological processes and serves as a fingerprint for disease development.

Meanwhile, other researchers are studying serum to garner clues about links between traumatic brain injury (TBI) and DNA methylation among individuals who served in Iraq and Afghanistan, gleaning information from samples on 150 service members with mild to severe TBI, along with 50 control subjects. Because individuals—both on and off the battlefield—can suffer from mild TBI and not know it, identifying a biomarker could help speed up clinical care, says study investigator Jennifer Rusiecki, an epidemiologist at Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences in Bethesda, Md.

Without the serum available through DoDSR and its accompanying information, some of this work would likely be impossible. “I’m not aware of other banks that have this data,” Rusiecki says. All told, almost 75 publications have depended on data gleaned from the samples in these freezers. Still more projects have drawn on them but did not make it into print. And because the repository’s stated purpose is health surveillance, the samples would not be chucked even if all the studies were halted, DoDSR’s Rubertone says.

 

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The military has instituted safeguards to prevent misuse of the serum reserve. All studies conducted with DoDSR serums are required to have a military co-investigator, a policy DoD put in place to help ensure that the serum is being used for military-relevant purposes. Researchers must also receive approval from their home institutions’ institutional review boards, groups that ensure investigators will guard patients’ confidentiality and adhere to ethical research principles.

Unfortunately, despite the scale of the military repository, blood serum has its limits as a medical resource. For research and health surveillance, the serum can only tell you so much, says Capt. Kevin Russell, the director of the Armed Forces Health Surveillance Center that oversees DoDSR. Because the serum samples are not linked to very specific exposure information—such as exactly where a service member was stationed or what he or she encountered while deployed—they only stand in as a surrogate for exposure. At the moment DoD is exploring whether other materials—urine, throat cultures, blood clots—or perhaps new technologies could enhance their repository. Nevertheless, it would be “unlikely” that Defense would get rid of its serum reserve or stop adding new samples, Russell says. And so four freezers remain empty, waiting.

Source: Nature

 

 

 

 

Guantanamo Bay: A Medical Ethics–free Zone?.


American physicians have not widely criticized medical policies at the Guantanamo Bay detainment camp that violate medical ethics. We believe they should. Actions violating medical ethics, taken on behalf of the government, devalue medical ethics for all physicians. The ongoing hunger strike at Guantanamo by as many as 100 of the 166 remaining prisoners presents a stark challenge to the U.S. Department of Defense (DOD) to resist the temptation to use military physicians to “break” the strike through force-feeding.

President Barack Obama has publicly commented on the hunger strike twice. On April 26, he said, “I don’t want these individuals [on hunger strike] to die.” In a May 23 speech on terrorism, the President said, “Look at our current situation, where we are force-feeding detainees who are . . . on a hunger strike. . . . Is this who we are? . . . Is that the America we want to leave our children? Our sense of justice is stronger than that.” How should physicians respond? That force-feeding of mentally competent hunger strikers violates basic medical ethics principles is not in serious dispute. Similarly, the Constitution Project‘s bipartisan Task Force on Detainee Treatment concluded in April that “forced feeding of detainees [at Guantanamo] is a form of abuse that must end” and urged the government to “adopt standards of care, policies, and procedures regarding detainees engaged in hunger strikes that are in keeping with established medical professional ethical and care standards.”1 Nevertheless, the DOD has sent about 40 additional medical personnel to help force-feed the hunger strikers.

The ethics standard regarding physician involvement in hunger strikes was probably best articulated by the World Medical Association (WMA) in its Declaration of Malta on Hunger Strikers. Created after World War II, the WMA comprises medical societies from almost 100 countries. Despite its checkered history, its process, transparency, and composition give it credibility regarding international medical ethics, and its statement on hunger strikers is widely considered authoritative. The WMA’s most familiar document is the Declaration of Helsinki — ethical guidelines for human-subjects research. The Declaration of Malta states that “Forcible feeding [of mentally competent hunger strikers] is never ethically acceptable. Even if intended to benefit, feeding accompanied by threats, coercion, force or use of physical restraints is a form of inhuman and degrading treatment.” The Declaration of Malta aims to set the same type of ethical norm as the Helsinki document. Physicians can no more ethically force-feed mentally competent hunger strikers than they can ethically conduct research on competent humans without informed consent.2

It’s hardly revolutionary to state that physicians should act only in the best interests of their patients, with their patients’ consent. At Guantanamo, this principle is seriously threatened because constant physician turnover makes continuity of care impossible; physicians’ historical involvement in “enhanced interrogation” that has irrevocably damaged detainees’ trust in military physicians; and the use of restraint chairs to break a 2006 mass hunger strike.3 Physicians may not ethically force-feed any competent person, but they must continue to provide beneficial medical care to consenting hunger strikers. That care could include not only treating specific medical conditions but also determining the mental competence of the strikers, determining whether there has been any coercion involved, and even determining whether the strikers want to accept voluntary feedings to continue their protest without becoming malnourished or risking death.4

Hunger striking is a peaceful political activity to protest terms of detention or prison conditions; it is not a medical condition, and the fact that hunger strikers have medical problems that need attention and can worsen does not make hunger striking itself a medical problem. Nonetheless, Guantanamo officials have consistently sought to medicalize hunger strikes by asserting that protestors are “suicidal” and must be force-fed to prevent self-harm and “save lives.”2 The DOD’s 2006 medical “Instruction” on this subject states: “In the case of a hunger strike, attempted suicide, or other attempted serious self-harm, medical treatment or intervention may be directed without the consent of the detainee to prevent death or serious harm.” This policy mistakenly conflates hunger striking with suicide.

Hunger strikers are not attempting to commit suicide. Rather, they are willing to risk death if their demands are not met. Their goal is not to die but to have perceived injustices addressed. The motivation resembles that of a person who finds kidney dialysis intolerable and discontinues it, knowing that he will die. Refusal of treatment with the awareness that death will soon follow is not suicide, according to both the U.S. Supreme Court and international medical ethics.2 The March 2013 guard-force–centered Guantanamo policy on “Medical Management of Detainees on Hunger Strike” seems to concede this point, since it makes no references to suicide. (Available atwww.globallawyersandphysicians.org/storage/AgendaHungerStrikeMeeting.pdf is the text and a summary of a meeting on physician participation in hunger strikes.)

A more troubling argument is that military physicians adhere to different medical ethical standards than civilian physicians — that as military officers, they must obey military orders, even if those orders violate medical ethics. Unlike individual medical and psychiatric assessments made in the context of a doctor–patient relationship, the decision to force-feed prisoners is made by the base commander. It is a penological decision about how best to run the prison. Physicians who participate in this nonmedical process become weapons for maintaining prison order.

Physicians at Guantanamo cannot permit the military to use them and their medical skills for political purposes and still comply with their ethical obligations. Force-feeding a competent person is not the practice of medicine; it is aggravated assault. Using a physician to assault prisoners no more changes the nature of the act than using physicians to “monitor” torture makes torture a medical procedure. Military physicians are no more entitled to betray medical ethics than military lawyers are to betray the Constitution or military chaplains are to betray their religion.5

Guantanamo is not just going to fade away, and neither is the stain on medical ethics it represents. U.S. military physicians require help from their civilian counterparts to meet their ethical obligations and maintain professional ethics. In April the American Medical Association appropriately wrote the secretary of defense that “forced feeding of [competent] detainees violates core ethical values of the medical profession.” But more should be done. We believe that individual physicians and professional groups should use their political power to stop the force-feeding, primarily for the prisoners’ sake but also for that of their colleagues. They should approach congressional leaders, petition the DOD to rescind its 2006 instruction permitting force-feeding, and state clearly that no military physician should ever be required to violate medical ethics. We further believe that military physicians should refuse to participate in any act that unambiguously violates medical ethics.

Military physicians who refuse to follow orders that violate medical ethics should be actively and strongly supported. Professional organizations and medical licensing boards should make it clear that the military should not take disciplinary action against physicians for refusing to perform acts that violate medical ethics. If the military nonetheless disciplines physicians who refuse to violate ethical norms when ordered to do so, civilian physician organizations, future employers, and licensing boards should make it clear that military discipline action in this context will in no way prejudice the civilian standing of the affected physician.

Guantanamo has been described as a “legal black hole.”3 As it increasingly also becomes a medical ethics–free zone, we believe it’s time for the medical profession to take constructive political action to try to heal the damage and ensure that civilian and military physicians follow the same medical ethics principles.

Source: NEJM