Covid cooled the CRISPR patent war

A CRISPR truce, expanding embryo research, and Israel's green pass

Hey it’s Alex. I’m sorry this issue is late! I’m working on some exciting stuff coming out next week and got sidetracked with reporting. Stay tuned! 😘

Have you ever painted with bacteria? Well, I haven’t either.

This week I’m looking forward to my first class with Genspace, the world’s first community biology lab. I’m taking “Synthetic Biology for Creatives,” a three week introductory course taught by independent creative director and emerging technology fellow at the Stanford, Karen Ingram. The class promises to engage novice biodesigners in the following:

  • Learning about existing and potential applications of synthetic biology

  • Considering the various ethical implications of this emerging technology

  • Making a colorful palette of bacteria and painting an image, using the bacteria grown in the class (I’m so excited about this part!)

One obvious silver lining of the pandemic is the wave of online course catalogues from community labs—nonprofit groups that are a part of the burgeoning Community Bio movement, which aims to lower the barriers to entry for accessing emerging biotechnologies.

Previously, one would need to be physically present in the community labs themselves to participate in the many classes on offer. But now, Genspace, as well as other established Community Bio labs like BioCurious and Baltimore Under Ground Science Space (BUGSS), are opening their educational materials to anyone with an internet connection and some extra time… and who doesn’t have that these days?

Here’s the latest:

A tentative truce in the CRISPR patent war?

In a story that reads like a romcom for biotech nerds, Stat describes the paths sometime rivals Feng Zhang and Nobel Prize winner Jennifer Doudna took to create at-home Covid testing kits—without worrying about their patent drama. It’s remarkable because for the past eight years or so, the two teams (one at the Broad in Cambridge, Mass. and one at UC Berkeley) have competed in the science equivalent of an East Coast-West Coast rap battle, fighting it out for supremacy and ownership of the CRISPR patent.

But in the face of a global pandemic, each set their financial interests aside and created systems that invited the world to use their designs freely. And, says Walter Isaacson, their example led other labs to put finance on the back burner in the interest of stopping the virus.

He writes that the soon-to-come at-home Covid tests will have an additional bonus: introducing biology to everyone. Love to see it! 👏👏👏

“The development of home testing kits has a potential impact beyond the fight against Covid-19: bringing biology into the home, the way that personal computers in the 1970s brought digital products and services — and an awareness of microchips and software code — into people’s daily lives and consciousness.”

What would you do if you knew you might pass a genetic disease to your child? Future Human
Let’s ditch Zoom for holograms. Engadget

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We should extend the 14 day rule for embryo experimentation

In the 1970s, when embryology was just starting out, it was impossible to grow a human embryo in a dish. The cells wouldn’t last more than six or seven days and, until 2016, this was the extent of our knowledge of early human life. Then, there was a breakthrough. Two teams showed that they could culture an embryo for two weeks, and perhaps even longer. But, they were each constrained by the “14 day rule,” a limit that some claim was an arbitrary compromise between researchers and those opposed to human embryo research. For more on the history of the rule in the US and UK, read this paper by my friend Giulia Cavalieri.

This week, a new paper is out in the Hastings Center Report that makes a good case for rethinking the rule. However, while the UK has a functional system for oversight of embryo research, no such system exists in the US. This is something we badly need!

If there was some kind of oversight infrastructure in place, created with input from scientists, ethicists, and the public, researchers could potentially push further than 14 days. However, this would undoubtedly disturb the delicate balance between scientific inquiry and pro-life activists opposed to any embryo research—a difficult political issue to take on in this time. But I think it’s worth it. Extending the 14 day limit to something like 30 days could be a gamechanger for our understanding of how humans develop, not to mention a boon for the fertility industry.

Israel rolled out the “green pass” this week, a vaccine passport program that allows vaccinated people to rejoin the world of the “before times.” A new commercial from the Ministry of Health advertises the program with mouth-watering visuals of live music venues, restaurants, and movie theatres, urging citizens to get their pass, an app that proves vaccination or recovery status.

Yes, this is tantalizing. But vaccine passports allow the wealthy and vaccinated a return to the kind of normalcy that everyone else is still waiting for. Those who have yet to get a vaccine could face discriminatory practices and stigma, say ethicists. Plus, with billions of tourism dollars at stake (who isn’t itching to get on a plane tomorrow?) vaccine passport programs promise rich countries an economic boost, while the developing world awaits donated vaccines and continues to languish in economic crisis. And while we’re on the subject, please fuck off with “vaccine tourism.”

So what do we do? More vaccines are needed before we reopen. It’s that simple.

It’s worth noting that while Israel has vaccinated a wide swath of its population, the situation in the Occupied Palestinian Territories is complicated.

Extra Credit:

Seth Rogen launched his weed company in the US. Fast Company
AI will put journalists out of work and it doesn’t even care. Nature
WTF is an NFT? If you’re confused about the newest digital culture trend, well, so am I. The Verge
Stop paying these CEOs. Quartz
Medical schools need to start teaching AI ethics. Advances in Health Sciences Education
Zebrafish love MC Hammer as much as Twitter. The Guardian
Proper ventilation will save us all. The Atlantic
How to biohack Ukraine’s education system. Esther Kim on YouTube
Normalize video trailers for academic papers!
Image via Genspace