Right now, arthritis treatment tends to be an all-or-nothing proposition: the drugs you take affect your entire body, causing havoc with your immune system and leaving you prone to infections. But how do you narrow the treatment to just those areas where you feel pain? Genetics, apparently. Researchers have used CRISPR gene editing to turn stem cells into cartilage that releases a biological anti-inflammatory drug when they encounter inflammation. It not only limits treatment to the affected area, but responds only when there's a pain flare. You only get relief when you need it.
The team has only just started testing these custom stem cells in mouse models of diseases like rheumatoid arthritis. However, the dream is that they'll eventually be used to replace arthritic cartilage and, for all intents and purposes, serve as a vaccine against arthritis. That, in turn, could prevent the secondary damage that makes arthritis that much worse. On top of this, the scientists believe their basic approach could apply to any condition where there's a "feedback loop." Imagine if you could treat diabetes with cells that trigger insulin production in response to glucose, for instance. This kind of automatic cell-based medicine may be years away, but it is on the horizon.
National Academy of Sciences endorses embryonic engineering
The next generation of humans may well be genetically modified. The National Academy of Sciences on Tuesday issued a 216-page reportendorsing human germline modification in the future, but only in certain cases that would otherwise result in children being born with serious genetic diseases.
Germline engineering refers to modifying a person or embryo's genetic code in such a way that the changes are passed onto their offspring. This differs from the more-accepted "somatic cell" method, better known as gene therapy, wherein the changes only affect the person being treated.
"Heritable germline genome editing trials must be approached with caution, but caution does not mean that they must be prohibited," the report read. A 22-member panel made up of prominent scientists and researchers spent a year compiling it. And while the panel is in favor of pursuing the technology, they warned that it must be done with "stringent oversight" and only as a corrective measure "preventing a serious disease or condition" -- not as a means of enhancing people with, say, super-strength, better looks or heightened intelligence.
The panel also stated that, in addition to preventing genetic diseases, gene editing to make people less susceptible to diseases like HIV, cancer or Alzheimer's would be acceptable. "We do not view prevention as a form of enhancement," the panel's co-chair, R. Alta Charo of the University of Wisconsin, told MIT Technology Review. "But whether it's permissible is up to regulators."
This recommendation stands in stark contrast to current legal regulations in both Europe and the US. Here in America, germline engineering has been outlawed since 2015 when Congress added a rider to the Health and Human Services appropriations bill which banned the FDA from considering any proposal employing such modifications. China, on the other hand, has no such qualms with the technology and has already begun experimenting with it.