More than 200 people have been treated with experimental CRISPR therapies
I watched scientists, ethicists, patient advocacy groups, and others wrestle with these topics at the Third International Summit on Human Genome Editing in London earlier this week.
There’s plenty to get excited about when it comes to gene editing. In the decade since scientists found they could use CRISPR to edit cell genomes, multiple clinical trials have sprung up to test the technology’s use for serious diseases. CRISPR has already been used to save some lives and transform others.
But it hasn’t all been smooth sailing. Not all of the trials have gone to plan, and some volunteers have died. Successful treatments are likely to be expensive, and thus limited to the wealthy few. And while these trials tend to involve changes to the genes in adult body cells, some are hoping to use CRISPR and other gene-editing tools in eggs, sperm, and embryos. The specter of designer babies continues to loom over the field.
It was at the last summit, held in Hong Kong in 2018, that He Jiankui, then based at the Southern University of Science and Technology in Shenzhen, China, announced that he had used CRISPR on human embryos. The news of the first “CRISPR babies,” as they became known, caused a massive ruckus, as you might imagine. “We’ll never forget the shock,” Victor Dzau, president of the US National Academy of Medicine, told us.
He Jiankui ended up in prison and was released only last year. And while heritable genome editing was already banned in China at the time—it has been outlawed since 2003—the country has since enacted a series of additional laws designed to prevent anything like that from happening again. Today, heritable genome editing is prohibited under criminal law, Yaojin Peng of the Beijing Institute of Stem Cell and Regenerative Medicine told the audience.
There was much less drama at this year’s summit. But there was plenty of emotion. In a session about how gene editing might be used to treat sickle-cell disease, Victoria Gray, a 37-year-old survivor of the disease, took to the stage. She told the audience about how her severe symptoms had disrupted her childhood and adolescence, and scuppered her dreams of training to be a doctor. She described episodes of severe pain that left her hospitalized for months at a time. Her children were worried she might die.
But then she underwent a treatment that involved editing the genes in cells from her bone marrow. Her new “super cells,” as she calls them, have transformed her life. Within minutes of receiving her transfusion of edited cells, she felt reborn and shed tears of joy, she told us. It took seven to eight months for her to feel better, but after that point, “I really began to enjoy the life that I once felt was just passing me by,” she said. I could see the typically stoic scientists around me wiping tears from their eyes.
Victoria is one of more than 200 people who have been treated with CRISPR-based therapies in clinical trials, said David Liu of the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard, who has led the development of new and improved forms of CRISPR. Trials are also underway for a range of other diseases, including cancers, genetic vision loss, and amyloidosis.
The Download: AI films, and the threat of microplastics
The Frost nails its uncanny, disconcerting vibe in its first few shots. Vast icy mountains, a makeshift camp of military-style tents, a group of people huddled around a fire, barking dogs. It’s familiar stuff, yet weird enough to plant a growing seed of dread. There’s something wrong here.
Welcome to the unsettling world of AI moviemaking. The Frost is a 12-minute movie from Detroit-based video creation company Waymark in which every shot is generated by an image-making AI. It’s one of the most impressive—and bizarre—examples yet of this strange new genre. Read the full story, and take an exclusive look at the movie.
—Will Douglas Heaven
Microplastics are everywhere. What does that mean for our immune systems?
Microplastics are pretty much everywhere you look. These tiny pieces of plastic pollution, less than five millimeters across, have been found in human blood, breast milk, and placentas. They’re even in our drinking water and the air we breathe.
Given their ubiquity, it’s worth considering what we know about microplastics. What are they doing to us?
The short answer is: we don’t really know. But scientists have begun to build a picture of their potential effects from early studies in animals and clumps of cells, and new research suggests that they could affect not only the health of our body tissues, but our immune systems more generally. Read the full story.
Microplastics are everywhere. What does that mean for our immune systems?
Here, bits of plastic can end up collecting various types of bacteria, which cling to their surfaces. Seabirds that ingest them not only end up with a stomach full of plastic—which can end up starving them—but also get introduced to types of bacteria that they wouldn’t encounter otherwise. It seems to disturb their gut microbiomes.
There are similar concerns for humans. These tiny bits of plastic, floating and flying all over the world, could act as a “Trojan horse,” introducing harmful drug-resistant bacteria and their genes, as some researchers put it.
It’s a deeply unsettling thought. As research plows on, hopefully we’ll learn not only what microplastics are doing to us, but how we might tackle the problem.
Read more from Tech Review’s archive
It is too simplistic to say we should ban all plastic. But we could do with revolutionizing the way we recycle it, as my colleague Casey Crownhart pointed out in an article published last year.
We can use sewage to track the rise of antimicrobial-resistant bacteria, as I wrote in a previous edition of the Checkup. At this point, we need all the help we can get …
… which is partly why scientists are also exploring the possibility of using tiny viruses to treat drug-resistant bacterial infections. Phages were discovered around 100 years ago and are due a comeback!
Our immune systems are incredibly complicated. And sex matters: there are important differences between the immune systems of men and women, as Sandeep Ravindran wrote in this feature, which ran in our magazine issue on gender.
Welcome to the new surreal. How AI-generated video is changing film.
Fast and cheap
Artists are often the first to experiment with new technology. But the immediate future of generative video is being shaped by the advertising industry. Waymark made The Frost to explore how generative AI could be built into its products. The company makes video creation tools for businesses looking for a fast and cheap way to make commercials. Waymark is one of several startups, alongside firms such as Softcube and Vedia AI, that offer bespoke video ads for clients with just a few clicks.
Waymark’s current tech, launched at the start of the year, pulls together several different AI techniques, including large language models, image recognition, and speech synthesis, to generate a video ad on the fly. Waymark also drew on its large data set of non-AI-generated commercials created for previous customers. “We have hundreds of thousands of videos,” says CEO Alex Persky-Stern. “We’ve pulled the best of those and trained it on what a good video looks like.”
To use Waymark’s tool, which it offers as part of a tiered subscription service starting at $25 a month, users supply the web address or social media accounts for their business, and it goes off and gathers all the text and images it can find. It then uses that data to generate a commercial, using OpenAI’s GPT-3 to write a script that is read aloud by a synthesized voice over selected images that highlight the business. A slick minute-long commercial can be generated in seconds. Users can edit the result if they wish, tweaking the script, editing images, choosing a different voice, and so on. Waymark says that more than 100,000 people have used its tool so far.
The trouble is that not every business has a website or images to draw from, says Parker. “An accountant or a therapist might have no assets at all,” he says.
Waymark’s next idea is to use generative AI to create images and video for businesses that don’t yet have any—or don’t want to use the ones they have. “That’s the thrust behind making The Frost,” says Parker. “Create a world, a vibe.”
The Frost has a vibe, for sure. But it is also janky. “It’s not a perfect medium yet by any means,” says Rubin. “It was a bit of a struggle to get certain things from DALL-E, like emotional responses in faces. But at other times, it delighted us. We’d be like, ‘Oh my God, this is magic happening before our eyes.’”
This hit-and-miss process will improve as the technology gets better. DALL-E 2, which Waymark used to make The Frost, was released just a year ago. Video generation tools that generate short clips have only been around for a few months.
The most revolutionary aspect of the technology is being able to generate new shots whenever you want them, says Rubin: “With 15 minutes of trial and error, you get that shot you wanted that fits perfectly into a sequence.” He remembers cutting the film together and needing particular shots, like a close-up of a boot on a mountainside. With DALL-E, he could just call it up. “It’s mind-blowing,” he says. “That’s when it started to be a real eye-opening experience as a filmmaker.”