Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Seeking Adventurous Humans...,

geneticsandsociety |  George Church hit a nerve when he recently discussed re-creating Neanderthals with an "adventurous human female" surrogate, in Der Spiegel. The media attention rapidly became fierce, with dozens of outlets carrying the remarks. Yesterday, Church told the Boston Herald that the whole kerfuffle was based on "poor translation." As for cloning a Neanderthal, he said, "I'm certainly not advocating it … I'm saying, if it is technically possible someday, we need to start talking about it today." 

It's good to hear Church disavowing the idea of using genetic engineering, synthetic biology and human surrogates to create a Neanderthal clone baby, at least for the time being. But it's disingenuous of him to shift all the blame onto the translation process. The phrase that clearly got the most attention was "adventurous female human" — and that comes straight from the prologue of his own recent book, Regenesis: How Synthetic Biology Will Reinvent Nature and Ourselves (co-authored with Ed Regis, published in October 2012):
If society becomes comfortable with cloning and sees value in true human diversity, then the whole Neanderthal creature itself could be cloned by a surrogate mother chimp — or by an extremely adventurous female human.
Is Church personally looking for a human surrogate to gestate a Neanderthal clone, right this minute? No. Is he willing to openly advocate for the scenario that he describes in some technical detail? Not forthrightly, and both in his book and in the interview that sparked the recent furor, he includes "ifs" and caveats. Does he think that the process will be technically feasible in the foreseeable future? Emphatically yes. He's been talking about this and similar projects for several years. For example:

New York Times, 2008, discussing the recreation of Neanderthals:
Dr. Church said there might be an alternative approach that would "alarm a minimal number of people." The workaround would be to modify not a human genome but that of the chimpanzee, which is some 98 percent similar to that of people. The chimp's genome would be progressively modified until close enough to that of Neanderthals, and the embryo brought to term in a chimpanzee.
"The big issue would be whether enough people felt that a chimp-Neanderthal hybrid would be acceptable, and that would be broadly discussed before anyone started to work on it," Dr. Church said.
Archaeology, 2010:
Church proposes to use the MAGE technique to alter a stem cell's DNA to match the Neanderthal genome. That stem cell would be left to reproduce, creating a colony of cells that could be programmed to become any type of cell that existed in the Neanderthal's body. Colonies of heart, brain, and liver cells, or possibly entire organs, could be grown for research purposes.
This technique could also be used to create a person. A stem cell with Neanderthal DNA could be implanted in a human blastocyst — a cluster of cells in the process of developing into an embryo. Then, all of the non-Neanderthal cells could be kept from growing. The individual who developed from that blastocyst would be entirely the result of Neanderthal genes. In effect, it would be a cloned Neanderthal.
… "We could learn a lot more from a living adult Neanderthal than we could from cell cultures," says Church. Special arrangements would have to be made to create a place for a cloned Neanderthal to live and pursue the life he or she would want, he says. The clone would also have to have a peer group, which would mean creating several clones, if not a whole colony. According to Church, studying those Neanderthals, with their consent, would have the potential to cure diseases and save lives.
Are you playing god, sir? Because you have the beard for it.
We're engineers, we're fixing only things that are broken. …
Can you bring things back from the dead? ...
We can make copies of things that have elements of animals or bacteria and so forth that were extinct.
You guys are working on the wooly mammoth, right?
It's a possibility.
Church has tests running in the lab around Neanderthal cells as he tries to determine what this species might have looked and acted like. ... "We have lots of Neanderthal parts around the lab. We are creating Neanderthal cells. Let's say someone has a healthy, normal Neanderthal baby. Well, then, everyone will want to have a Neanderthal kid. Were they superstrong or supersmart? Who knows? But there's one way to find out."
... How far off is this brave new world? Well, according to Church, probably not far at all. "The cheap human genome was supposed to arrive 50 years from now," he says. "It arrived this year. What if a cheap Neanderthal or mammoth arrives 50 years ahead of time?"