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Scientists step closer to designer babies

By Chukwuma Muanya, Assistant Editor   |   04 May 2017   |   4:40 am  

DESIGNER BABIES…Scientists have alerted to improvements in genetics, which are causing designer babies to near ‘100 per cent efficiency’ in trials using mice. They said synthetic human Deoxy Nucleic Acid (DNA)/genetic material will be grown in the lab in as little as five years

• To create synthetic human genetic material in just five years
• Carry out head transplant on rat to create bizarre two-headed rodent in practice run for controversial human experiment
• Biovac, PATH to develop novel vaccine against newborn infection

Scientists have alerted to improvements in genetics, which are causing designer babies to near ‘100 per cent efficiency’ in trials using mice. They said synthetic human Deoxy Nucleic Acid (DNA)/genetic material will be grown in the lab in as little as five years.

Last year, more than 100 scientists attended a secretive meeting to discuss an ambitious project to recreate the six billion ‘letters’ that make up humans’ unique genetic code.

Next week the researchers will meet again and announce a $100 million (£77 million) plan to artificially create life’s building blocks, it was revealed Tuesday.

But the news is likely to refuel concerns over the creation of ‘designer babies’.

Researchers are suggesting the launch of a project to produce man-made human genomes in the lab.

Human Genome Project-write (HGP-write) would enable researchers to expand on techniques already being used in the lab to create synthetic yeast, and synthesis DNA in the lab.

The group of 25 scientists has highlighted the need for technology and ethical frameworks, but say the approach could lead to: Growing organs for transplant patients; Engineering immunity to lethal viruses, such as Ebola or Zika; Making synthetic genes to study their role in cells; Synthesising whole chromosomes, such as chromosome 21- an extra copy of which is responsible for Down’s syndrome; and Developing cancer-resistant cells in the lab.

A geneticist at the University of Bath, Dr. Tony Perry, told DailyMailUK Online that society needed to be prepared for the day parents could choose certain traits in their children.

The warning follows a breakthrough last April in which scientists were able to cure a genetic liver disease in living, adult mice using the CRISPR-Cas9 gene editing technique.

The CRISPR technology precisely changes target parts of genetic code and could be used to create designer babies.

Unlike other gene-silencing tools, the CRISPR system targets the genome’s source material and permanently turns off genes at the DNA level.

Also, ahead of a controversial plan to carry out the first human head transplant later this year, scientists have attached the head of a rat onto the body of another.

In the disturbing experiment, researchers in China affixed the heads of smaller, ‘donor’ rats onto the backs of larger recipients, creating two-headed animals that lived an average of just 36 hours.

The team, which involved the Italian neurosurgeon who is set to perform the hotly-debated procedure on a human, managed to complete the transplant without causing blood loss-related brain damage to the donor.

In the study, researchers from Harbin Medical University in China and controversial neurosurgeon Sergio Canavero built upon earlier head-grafting experiments to figure out how to avoid damage to the brain tissue during the operation, as well as long-term immune rejection.

Previously, scientists have attempted the procedure on dogs and monkeys, which helped to test neural preservation when blood flood to the brain had been cut off, they explain in the paper published to CNS Neuroscience & Therapeutics.

But, long-term survival of the specimens was not a priority.

Also, the South Africa–based Biovac Institute (Biovac) and PATH, an international health organization, are pleased to announce the launch of a collaborative partnership to develop a novel vaccine against Group B Streptococcus (GBS), supported by a grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. The partnership was announced Tuesday at the Innovation Effect Africa symposium held alongside the World Economic Forum event in Durban.

Biovac, a public-private partnership based in Cape Town, will be one of only three companies in the world and the only developing-country vaccine manufacturer to develop a novel conjugate vaccine against GBS.

GBS is a leading cause of severe infection in newborns and young infants in many countries, including South Africa. In fact, the estimated incidence of invasive GBS disease in South Africa is among the highest, with 2.38 cases per 1,000 live births. Whilst people of all ages can contract the GBS bacterial infection, newborns are more susceptible and vulnerable to this potentially deadly infection—particularly as an estimated one in four pregnant women carries the GBS bacterium, which can be passed to babies during birth. In parts of the developing world, mortality rates can reach as high as 38 percent. Babies who survive the disease are often left with lifelong disabilities such as deafness, blindness, and developmental delays. GBS may also play a role in miscarriage and stillbirth.

Preventative antibiotic treatment given to mothers before birth can successfully prevent early-onset GBS in newborns, but this option is not available in most resource-limited countries—and it doesn’t always protect against late-onset GBS, which can occur in the weeks or months following birth without any clear cause. .

A vaccine against GBS would be revolutionary in that it would be given to pregnant mothers who would pass on the protective antibodies to their babies, ensuring protection at birth and during the first critical months of life (when late-onset GBS disease is a risk).

No licensed vaccines currently exist to protect against GBS infection. A GBS vaccine designed specifically for low-resource countries could provide a chance for all babies to get a healthy start in life. Inventprise, a Seattle-area biotechnology startup with experience in conjugate vaccine development, will provide initial technical support, ensuring Biovac is well-positioned to manufacture a vaccine that targets sub-Saharan Africa and potentially other low-income regions of the world.

PATH has one of the world’s largest vaccine portfolios, with expertise covering the full spectrum of activities needed to reach those most at risk from vaccine-preventable diseases. That includes preclinical work and clinical trials in low-resource settings to build evidence of a vaccine’s effectiveness.

For example, PATH, the World Health Organization, and Serum Institute of India Pvt. Limited. led a global collaboration with scientists and partners that developed and introduced the MenAfriVac® vaccine, the first vaccine tailor-made for countries in Africa’s “meningitis belt.”

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