This Way Up for Saturday 3 June 2017

Gene editing: how much hype? Google's tax bill & the Esssential phone, board game bonanza, and funding fun by fans.

Gene editing: too much hype?

CRISPR Cas9 is a technique used to edit DNA. And since winning Science magazine's breakthrough of the year in 2015, it's had loads of hype.

People have called it a game changer, a research revolution and a way to edit life that will change medicine, farming and genetic science forever.

It has even been reported that actor and singer Jennifer Lopez will executive-produce a new CRISPR-themed biocrime drama on NBC - how many other techniques from molecular biology can claim a celebrity endorsement like that?

Biochemist Ian Hayden has been looking at where we're at and where we're heading with CRISPR.

File 20170531 23531 1sfeuqi
Laboratory mice are among the first animals to have their diseases treated by CRISPR. tiburi via

Ian Haydon, University of Washington

A new research paper is stirring up controversy among scientists interested in using DNA editing to treat disease.

In a two-page article published in the journal Nature Methods on May 30, a group of six scientists report an alarming number of so-called “off-target mutations” in mice that underwent an experimental gene repair therapy.

CRISPR, the hot new gene-editing technique that’s taken biology by storm, is no stranger to headlines. What is unusual, however, is a scientific article so clearly describing a potentially fatal shortcoming of this promising technology.

The research community is digesting this news – with many experts suggesting flaws with the experiment, not the revolutionary technique.

Unwanted DNA changes

The research team sought to repair a genetic mutation known to cause a form of blindness in mice. This could be accomplished, they showed, by changing just one DNA letter in the mouse genome.

They were able to successfully correct the targeted mutation in each of the two mice they treated. But they also observed an alarming number of additional DNA changes — more than 1,600 per mouse — in areas of the genome they did not intend to modify.

The authors attribute these unintended mutations to the experimental CRISPR-based gene editing therapy they used.

Cas9, the CRISPR enzyme that snips DNA, in contact with its target. | PDB: 5FW2 | doi:10.2210/pdb5fw2/pdb, CC BY-ND

A central promise of CRISPR-based gene editing is its ability to pinpoint particular genes. But if this technology produces dangerous side effects by creating unexpected and unwanted mutations across the genome, that could hamper or even derail many of its applications.

Several previous research articles have reported off-target effects of CRISPR, but far fewer than this group found.

Reaction is skeptical

The publicly traded biotech companies seeking to commercialize CRISPR-based gene therapies – Editas Medicine, Intellia Therapeutics and Crispr Therapeuticsall took immediate stock market hits based on the news.

Experts in the field quickly responded.



“Either the enzyme is acting at near optimal efficiency or something fishy is going on here,” tweeted Matthew Taliaferro, a postdoctoral fellow at MIT who studies gene expression and genetic disease.

The Cas9 enzyme in the CRISPR system is what actually cuts DNA, leading to genetic changes. Unusually high levels of enzyme activity could account for the observed off-target mutations – more cutting equals more chances for the cell to mutate its DNA. Different labs use slightly different methods to try to ensure the right amount of cuts happen only where intended.



“Unusual methods were used,” tweeted Lluis Montoliu, who runs a lab at the Spanish National Centre for Biotechnology that specializes in editing mice genes using CRISPR. He believes the authors used suboptimal molecular components in their injected CRISPR therapies – specifically a plasmid that causes cells to produce too much Cas9 enzyme – likely leading to the off-target effects they observed.



Gaétan Burgio, whose laboratory at the Australian National University is working to understand the role that cellular context plays on CRISPR efficiency, believes the paper’s central claim that CRISPR caused such an alarming number of off-target mutations is “not substantiated.”

Burgio says there could be a range of reasons for seeing so many unexpected changes in the mice, including problems with accurately detecting DNA variation, the extremely small number of mice used, random events happening after Cas9 acted or, he concedes, problems with CRISPR itself.

Burgio has been editing the DNA of mice using CRISPR since 2014 and has never seen a comparable level of off-target mutation. He says he’s confident that additional research will refute these recent findings.

Continuing CRISPR work

Although the news of this two-mouse experiment fired up the science-focused parts of the Twittersphere, the issue it raises is not new to the field.

Researchers have known for a few years now that off-target mutations are likely given certain CRISPR protocols. More precise variants of the Cas9 enzyme have been shown to improve targeting in human tissue the lab.

Researchers have also focused on developing methods to more efficiently locate off-target mutations in the animals they study.

The ConversationAs scientists continue to hone the gene-editing technique, we recognize there’s still a way to go before CRISPR will be ready for safe and effective gene therapy in humans.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Tech news: Google's tax bill & your next 'essential' phone

The Essential Phone

Photo: Essential

The founder of Android launches a new smartphone, the Essential. So... is it?

Also, Google's latest New Zealand accounts reveal the company reveal that the company isn't paying much tax here as its ad revenues are largely booked offshore.

And China introduces new laws that mean foreign tech companies will have to store data on servers located inside the country if they want to do business there. 

NZ board game set to go big-time

Shem Phillips' Viking-themed game Raiders of the North Sea has just been nominated for an international award that could change his life forever.

The local game designer has raised over a million dollars to make board games via the crowdfunding website Kickstarter.

Next month, he'll find out whether he has won a German Spiel des Jahres award.

In the meantime, we visit him on the Kapiti Coast to get some tips on designing a compelling board game.

Games fans fund their own fun

Conan battle

Conan battle Photo: (Supplied)

The crowdfunding website Kickstarter has become an important way for games designers to connect with fans and raise the cash needed to fund the production of their games.

In what seems counter-intuitive for an online platform, Kickstarter began targeting games as part of its business model about five years ago.

Role-playing games, board games and card games have so far attracted NZ$800 million of funding, which is six times more funding than for digital games and about 20 percent of all funds Kickstarter raised.

Games fan and journalist Owen Duffy has been looking at Kickstarter's role in developing and selling board games.

"March 2012 was when games really blew up on Kickstarter. They went from a normal category to 'What the…!?' in a very short space of time" - Luke Crane, Kickstarter's head of games quoted by Owen Duffy