Friday, October 16, 2015

Pig Organs, Ancient Immigrants

We're years away from safe pig-to-human organ transplants: but scientists using CRISPR gene editing tech are working toward that goal.

Other scientists are discovering a chapter of humanity's family history: Eurasian immigrants returning to Africa, when the Shang dynasty and Egyptian Empire collapsed.
  1. CRISPR Genetic Tech: Pigs as Organ Transplant Donors?
  2. Returning Home: Back to Africa, 3,000 Years Ago

Tech, Old and New


There's no such thing as "safe" tech. Not in the 'absolutely nothing can go wrong' sense.

Over the last million years or so, we've learned to cook without killing ourselves, and incinerated cities at irregular intervals before developing less flammable buildings and more effective fire suppression tech. (May 9, 2014; April 27, 2014)

But my guess is that we'll still need first responders or their equivalent a million years from now. We're smart, but accidents happen. And sometimes we get careless: or deliberately cause trouble. (February 1, 2015)

We've used tech like string for so long that it seems 'natural.' Newer tech, like steam engines and neurosynaptic cores, not so much. (August 15, 2014)

Tales like "Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus" (1818) and "The Island of Doctor Moreau" (1896) were more fiction than science — but arguably more thoughtful than "Island of Lost Souls" (1932) and "Frankenstein Meets the Space Monster (1965).

More recently, a pinch of science and hogsheads of imagination produced films like "Carnosaur 3: Primal Species" (1996) and "Splice" (2009). I'm pretty sure most folks realize that direct-to-video movies are entertainment, not edutainment.

But unconsidered optimism about progress gave way to equally-unconsidered pessimism during my youth. I think we don't live in a perfect world, but doomsday predictions and fashionable melancholia seem silly. (July 5, 2015)

Think!


Thinking is not a sin. Really.

We've got brains, and are expected to use them. Part of our job is learning about the universe, and using that knowledge. Ethics matter in science and tech, just like everything else we do. (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 154-159, 2292-2296)

A scientist occasionally embraces the notion that smart folks are "beyond good and evil." I suspect that attitude contributes to real-life horrors like Ilya Ivanovich Ivanov's 1920s attempts to breed a human-ape hybrid; and experiments like the ones performed at Auschwitz, Dachau, Tuskegee, and Willowbrook.

Then there was Johann Conrad Dippel, who wrote that he'd invented an elixir that'd keep him alive until he was 135 years old. He died a few months short of his 61st birthday.

Like I said, we've got brains. But we have free will, so using our brains is an option: not a requirement. (Catechism, 1730-1738)

We've also got feelings, emotions. That's okay. It's part of being human. Emotions happen. They're not good or bad by themselves. (Catechism, 1762-1770)

I think it's easier in the short term to act on impulse, letting my endocrine system run my life. But I'm human: so in the long run, I'm better off if I think before I act. (Catechism, 1778, 1804, 2339)

That takes more effort, and can be inconvenient: but I've found that using my brain makes sense.

That's why I don't assume that CRISPR and other biotechnology is a worry-free solution to all our ills — or something that will destroy us all.

Whether we use technology to help or harm ourselves and others is up to us. Blaming our tools doesn't make sense. Neither, I think, does yearning for the 'good old days' of cholera pandemics and frequent famines. (March 27, 2015; January 9, 2015)

We'll probably need new rules to deal with CRISPR and other new tech: but the underlying principles don't change. Loving neighbors — and seeing everybody as neighbors — still makes sense. (Matthew 22:36-40, 5:43-44; Mark 12:28-31; Luke 10:25-27, 29-37; Catechism, 1825)


1. CRISPR Genetic Tech: Pigs as Organ Transplant Donors?



(From Science Photo Library, Mauro Fermariello; via BBC News, used w/o permission.)
" 'GM could make pig organs for humans' "
Michelle Roberts, BBC News (October 12, 2015)

"A gene-editing method could one day make pig organs suitable for use in people, scientists say.

"Prof George Church and colleagues used a technique called Crispr to alter the DNA of pig cells to create a better match for humans.

"The early work, in the journal Science, aims to address concerns about rejection and infection by viruses embedded in pig DNA.

"If successful, it could be an answer to the shortage of human donor organs...."
The Science article says that around 122,500 folks in the United States are waiting for organ transplants.

Organ and tissue transplants have a long history.

It's been about 22 centuries since Sushruta did the first recorded skin graft. Theodor Kocher did human thyroid transplant in 1883. Work by Peter Medawar and others in the 1940s and 50s identified the immune responses that usually killed transplant patients.

The human immune system is very good at identifying organic stuff in our bodies that doesn't belong there. The problem with transplants is that the immune system generally identifies a new organ or tissue as a threat: and attacks it as if it was a parasite or pathogen.

In 1972, researchers at Sandoz developed ciclosporin, the first immunosuppressive strong enough to keep transplant patients alive.

That's the good news. The not-so-good news is that we don't have enough spare hearts, kidneys, livers, lungs, and other organs, to go around.

Legal and social attitudes toward organ suppliers vary from country to country.

Moldova, for example, outlawed international adoption: apparently because the country's rulers were squeamish about kids being broken down for parts.1 Other nations are a bit more open to folks with flexible ethics.

I'm a Catholic, so I must think that organ transplants are a good idea — if the benefits outweigh the risks, and someone isn't maimed or killed in the process. (Catechism, 2296)

Genetic Technology and Vocabulary



(From Science Photo Library, via BBC News, used w/o permission.)
"...Crispr is a relatively new scientific tool that lets scientists snip and play around with the code of life - DNA.

"Prof Church, from Harvard University, used it to inactivate a retrovirus present in the pig cell line.

"This porcine endogenous retrovirus is potentially risky because it can infect human cells - at least in the lab.

"In tests on early pig embryos, Prof Church was able to eliminate all 62 copies of porcine endogenous retroviruses from the pig cells using Crispr.

"Next, he checked if the modified pig cells would still easily pass the retrovirus on to human cells. They did not, although there was still a small amount of transmission.

"Prof Church says the discovery holds great promise for using animal organs in people - what doctors call xenotransplantation...."
(Michelle Roberts, BBC News)
Vocabulary time. Feel free to take a coffee break, go for a walk, or skip down to Synthetic Organisms, like Chickens.

Xenotransplantation is transplanting organs or tissue between individuals of different species.

CRISPRs, clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats, "are segments of prokaryotic DNA containing short repetitions of base sequences." (Wikipedia)

Prokaryotes are critters without membrane-enclosed cell nuclei. We're eukaryotes, since our cells have a membrane around the nucleus. Not our red blood cells, though, and that's another topic. Topics. (June 19, 2015)

Bacteria have been using CRISPRs for a very long time. We didn't notice them until 1987. Researchers recently spotted bacterial CRISPRs from bacteriophages and extrachromosomal DNA.

We've known about horizontal gene transfer since 1951, and that's yet more topics. (August 28, 2015)

A retrovirus inserts DNA code into its host's DNA. Scientists picked up their trail in the early 20th century. They're used for gene therapy these days — something that didn't exist until 1972, and wasn't tried with humans until 1989.

'Designer babies' aren't here yet, but we're close. I see problems and opportunities in the emerging tech, which are — Yet again more topics. (January 23, 2015)

Synthetic Organisms, like Chickens


If this research leads to practical pig-to-human organ transplants, I'm pretty sure that editorial cartoons will lampoon the new tech, and those who benefit from it.

Folks with religious, ethical, or aesthetic objections to pigs will most likely protest. But I don't see a problem.

Getting a pig's heart might be an 'image' problem for a politician or movie star — but doesn't involve the ethical issues involved in human-pig and human-safflower hybrids. (August 28, 2015; February 14, 2014)

It's not that I think artificial organisms offend a hypersensitive God.

Unless you're a hunter, the odds are pretty good that you've never eaten food that didn't come from a modified critter. Synthetic organisms like chickens, dogs, and macaroni wheat, have been with us for a very long time. (March 6, 2015)

I'm inclined to give 'primitive' folks credit for more competence than some academics. A footnote says that Jacob's deal with Laban, in Genesis 30:31-43, illustrates a 'simple' belief that visual stimuli affect DNA.

My guess is that Laban made the mistake of letting someone with a shepherd's practical understanding of heredity control the flock's breeding: and that the rods mentioned in Genesis 30:27-38 were a misdirect. Laban isn't shown as the brightest lamp in the camp.

Paul used grafting, artificially combining parts from different plants, as a metaphor in Romans 11:19-24. But I don't think that passage condemns the practice.

People aren't sheep or olive trees, though, which gets me back to human-animal hybrids.

Remembering Who We Are


"Instruction Dignitas Personae on Certain Bioethical Questions" (2008), 33., specifically addresses reprogramming human somatic cells with another animal's oocytes.

Combining DNA from a human and a pig or safflower is possible, but "...such procedures represent an offense against the dignity of human beings on account of the admixture of human and animal genetic elements capable of disrupting the specific identity of man...."1

Science and technology are not a problem. Studying this universe and making new tools are part of being human. It's what we're supposed to do. (Catechism, 2292-2295)

But we're also supposed to remember who we are. We're made in the image of God, with a dignity that must be recognized. Respect for the dignity of the human person is why social justice is so important, and that's still another topic. (Catechism, 1700, 1701-1706, 1928-1942)

I accept what the Church says about mixing human and other DNA. I am also certain that two millennia from now the Church will still say that humanity is made in the image of God — with the dignity and responsibilities that implies.

Since we're rapidly discovering more about horizontal gene transfer and other previously-unknown aspects of genetics, I suspect that rules about DNA will be reviewed within the next century: probably sooner. (August 28, 2015)

I had something in mind there. Let's see: pigs; politicians; Laban; respect. Right.

Ethical Landmines


These scientists have been using CRISPR to modify porcine DNA: removing code that would harm a human organ recipient.

Pigs are popular biomedical research lab animals because they're a lot like us in terms of size, biological processes, and anatomy. (Wikipedia)

Porcine organs aren't exactly like a human's: but apparently many are close enough to work for transplants.

And raising pigs as donors doesn't have nearly as many ethical landmines as raising humans for the same purpose. (February 13, 2015)


2. Returning Home: Back to Africa, 3,000 Years Ago



(From Kathryn and John Arthur, via BBC News, used w/o permission.)
("The remains were found in this cave in the highlands of Ethiopia"
(BBC News))
"Ancient DNA reveals 'into Africa' migration"
Rebecca Morelle, BBC News (October 8, 2015)

"An ancient African genome has been sequenced for the first time.

"Researchers extracted DNA from a 4,500-year-old skull that was discovered in the highlands of Ethiopia.

"A comparison with genetic material from today's Africans reveals how our ancient ancestors mixed and moved around the continents.

"The findings, published in the journal Science, suggests that about 3,000 years ago there was a huge wave of migration from Eurasia into Africa.

"This has left a genetic legacy, and the scientists believe up to 25% of the DNA of modern Africans can be traced back to this event...."
As I've said before, folks move around. A lot. (July 11, 2014)

Details of that massive migration are being debated, but I'm not surprised that it happened.

Between 1200 and 1150 BC, more or less, something dreadful happened around the eastern Mediterranean.

Nearly every city between Pylos and Gaza was destroyed. Mycenaean kingdoms and the empires of Egypt and the Hittites collapsed.

We don't know what went wrong.

The Hekla 3 eruption may or may not have caused two decades of globally reduced sunlight around that time. Or a Bond event may have triggered the Late Bronze Age collapse.

As I've said before, Earth's climate changes. We're starting to sort out some of the periodic fluctuations, like Bond events. They're disruptive, but not necessarily devastating.

Barbarians and Frost Fairs


The Little Ice Age, about five centuries back, didn't do much besides force China to change agricultural practices in Jiangxi Province, popularize ice skating and make events like the River Thames frost fairs possible in Europe.

But we didn't have the social and political issues plaguing the Roman Empire, a thousand years before that, when barbarians moved east and south. We had really bad weather during 535–536.

My ancestors may have been among the barbarians who took over Roman land — or more likely were among the folks pushing them south. The barbarians eventually started building Gothic cathedrals and steam engines, and I'm wandering off-topic again.

Another Bond event, the 4.2 kiloyear event, wreaked havoc. So did the 5.9 and 8.2 kiloyear events. I've discussed this year's climate talks and King Cnut before. (July 3, 2015)

Getting back to the Late Bronze Age collapseIronworking, a new technology, may have disrupted traditional economic and military systems. Infantry equipped with mass-produced bronze weapons may have made military chariots obsolete.

Illiteracy became common, which may help explain why tales of the Trojan War are a mix of fact and imagination. It was - - -

- - - the End of Civilization As They Knew It


Quite a bit changed after the Late Bronze Age collapse.

Egypt's Twenty-second and Twenty-third dynasties were immigrant families. New smelting tech made iron tools and weapons affordable, King Wu of Zhou founded the Zhou dynasty, and Saul became the first king of of a united Israel.

Folks on the Aegean peninsula re-learned writing from the Phoenicians, and formed self-governing communities which would give us Plato, Socrates, and the Peloponnesian War, although not in that order.

The Roman Republic eventually took over 'all of the above,' became the Roman Empire, which dissolved about fifteen centuries back, that brings me back to today — and I see I've gotten off-topic yet again.

With Kaskians, Phrygians and Arameans roaming and raiding where the Hittite Empire had been; and great cities like Hattusa, Mycenae, and Ugarit in ruins; it's no surprise that many farmers moved back to Africa.

The University of Cambridge's Dr. Andrea Manica says that about a quarter of the folks living in East Africa back then were immigrants: mostly from western Eurasia.

Discovering a Complex Family History



(From Kathryn and John Arthur, via BBC News, used w/o permission.)
("The researchers uncovered a rock cairn before finding the buried remains underneath"
(BBC News)
"...Ancient genomes have been sequenced from around the world, but Africa has proved difficult because hot and humid conditions can destroy fragile DNA.

"However, the 4,500-year-old remains of this hunter gatherer, known as Mota man, were found in a cave and were well preserved.

"Importantly, a bone that is situated just below the ear, called the petrous, was intact.

"Dr Manica, speaking to Science in Action on the BBC World Service, said: 'The petrous bone is really hard and does a really good job of preventing bacteria getting in and degrading this DNA.

"What we were able to get is some very high quality undamaged DNA from which we could reconstruct the whole genome of the individual.

" 'We have the complete blueprint, every single gene, every single bit of information that made this individual that lived 4,500 years ago in Ethiopia.'..."
(Rebecca Morelle, BBC News)
Filling in humanity's family history by studying our genomes is new. We're discovering that it's complicated, which may upset some folks. I'm not one of them, partly because I know a bit about my recent ancestors. And that's — another topic. (October 31, 2014; July 11, 2014; July 6, 2014)

Mota man's DNA was "purely African." His ancestors had stayed in humanity's homeland, when many of mine moved out some 60,000 years back.

Like I said earlier, we're learning that a whole lot of folks returned around the time Troy fell and Western civilization collapsed, again, roughly three thousand years ago. Can't say that I blame them, considering the chaos and destruction sweeping their world.

Anyway, the returnees started doing what almost everyone does: "interbreeding" with local families. I don't particularly like that term, but it's better than "miscegenation," and I've been over that before. (February 6, 2015; December 12, 2014; October 31, 2014)

Honestly, how many folks really want to emulate the Hapsburgs? (December 12, 2014)

Not surprisingly, the highest percentage of  Eurasian DNA — including genetic code picked up from Neanderthal ancestors — is in northeastern Africa. Dr. Manica says that percentages run from 20% in Ethiopia to 5%, roughly, in western and southern Africa.

I'm guessing that we'll see reasonable discussion of the data and analysis. There'll also, I suspect, be complaints from folks who don't like the idea of 'foreigners' in their family tree.

Burial and Reasonable Respect


Burial isn't a universal custom, but folks around the world show respect for the dead: usually.2

Archaeology has come a long way since the days when amateur treasure-hunters mining barrows and tombs extracted gold and jewels: disturbing valuable evidence in the process.

Heinrich Schliemann's eagerness to discover Troy may have resulted in his obliterating evidence that he was right.

Fossils generally aren't as shiny as jewelry, which may be why paleontology's history has had relatively few incidents like the Bone Wars.

Even hoaxes like the Piltdown Man and Archaeoraptor were comparatively low-key affairs, and I'm drifting off-topic. Again. (October 31, 2014; August 8, 2014)

We have learned a great deal from studying burial sites like the Dinaledi Chamber and Denisova Cave. (September 18, 2015; July 11, 2014)

However —

'Mota man' has been dead for four and a half millennia. His descendants may still be living in or near Ethiopia, but it's possible — even likely — that no one will claim his remains.

I hope that his bones will be treated with respect.

This isn't superstitious fear that ghosts will wreak vengeance on those who disturb a grave. That sort of thing is okay for movies of the 'Revenge of the Mummy Returns' variety: but I'm a Catholic. Superstition is a bad idea, and against the rules. (Catechism, 2110-2111, 2138)

However, respect for others doesn't stop when they die. Bodies "must be treated with respect and charity," which does not mean that autopsies are wrong. (Catechism, 2300-2301)

I've rambled on about death, resurrection, burial and cremation before. (September 25, 2009)

The remains of 'Mota man' may end up in a museum, and may be placed on display. I'm not sure what I think of that.

Decades back, I saw an Egyptian mummy in a Minnesota museum: what was left of some government official, I think. I remember feeling a bit sad, wondering what he would think of being above ground and far from home.

More of my take on genes, people, and all that:

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2 comments:

Brigid said...

Which is your opinion? The transition or that we don't live in a perfect world? "But unconsidered optimism about progress gave way to equally-unconsidered pessimism during my youth. My opinion. I think we don't live in a perfect world, but doomsday predictions and fashionable melancholia seem silly."

Delete 'the:' "horrors like the Ilya Ivanovich Ivanov's 1920s attempts to breed"

Wrong word: "He died a few months short of this 61st birthday."

Is the person who's avenged the one who was wronged? "ghosts will avenge those who disturb a grave."

The Friendly Neighborhood Proofreader

Brian Gill said...

Thanks, Brigid. Found and - fixed, for the most part. I had to read "short of this" about four times before I realized that there was an extra "t."

About "ghosts will avenge" - oops. I got the direction confused, sort of.

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