Article by noted bioethicist Françoise Baylis

Genome editing of human embryos broadens ethics discussions

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Scientists are using a powerful gene editing technique to understand how human embryos develop.
shutterstock

Françoise Baylis, Dalhousie University

For several years, scientists have experimented on human embryos with a powerful genome editing tool called CRISPR to see if they could correct genetic errors or reduce the risk of disease. In September, Kathy Niakan at the Francis Crick Institute in London and her colleagues reported they had used this tool on human embryos for a very different purpose — to better understand human development.

The use of CRISPR (pronounced “crisper”) to modify human embryos has prompted a healthy debate on the ethics of human genetic technologies. This tool is controversial, in part, because changes that are made to the embryo could be passed down to future generations. Niakan’s recent research is novel, and less ethically fraught than some other genome-editing research.

Research labs around the world are using CRISPR to selectively insert, delete or replace DNA with far greater precision and at a lower cost than other genome-editing techniques. Since 2015, five reports have detailed its use in human embryos to correct disease-causing mutations or create resistance to infectious disease.

Scientists have modified the genes responsible for β-thalassemia (an inherited blood disorder), favism (a reaction to eating fava beans), and a type of heart disease. Another experiment used CRISPR to introduce a mutation into a protein called CCR5 in an effort to prevent HIV infection.

A striking difference

The project led by Niakan had a starkly different aim. It used CRISPR to peek at the earliest stages of human embryonic development by targeting a gene called OCT4, which is active in the cells that go on to form the embryo.

Niakan’s immediate objective was to better understand the early aspects of human development. But her research eventually may help reveal why some pregnancies end in miscarriages and may improve the success of in vitro fertilization.

Much of the global discussion over the ethics of modifying human embryos has focused on whether the technique might be unsafe or used for non-medical purposes. Niakan’s recent project brings other aspects of this debate to light. How do scientists acquire the embryos they use in their research, and how are their projects approved?

So far, these types of experiments have been done in China, the United Kingdom and the United States. With only limited data available on the experiments conducted in China, it makes sense to focus the discussion on the experiments based in the United States and in the United Kingdom.

Who’s taking the risk – and why?

Earlier this year, Shoukhrat Mitalipov, a reproductive biologist at Oregon Health and Science University (OHSU), and his colleagues used CRISPR in human embryos to repair a mutation that causes heart disease. From an ethics standpoint, Mitalipov’s research is more controversial than Niakan’s. The goal of his experiments was to make changes to the human embryo that could be passed on to future generations. Niakan’s research, on the other hand, aimed to develop our understanding of human embryology.

To do the experiments, Mitalipov’s team had to create human embryos from donated eggs and sperm. In contrast, Niakan’s project used embryos that were left over from fertility treatments. This is an important difference.

For Mitalipov’s study, the women who donated their eggs for research were exposed to the risks associated with hormonal stimulation and egg retrieval. These risks include abdominal pain, vomiting, rapid weight gain, shortness of breath, and damage to the organs that are close to the ovaries. A particularly serious risk is ovarian hyperstimulation syndrome that can require hospitalization.

With Niakan’s study, women assumed these risks in connection with their IVF treatment, not their participation in research. These women weighed the potential harms of hormonal stimulation and egg retrieval against the potential benefits of having a child using assisted human reproduction. Embryos remaining after fertility treatment were donated to research.

Looking ahead

It’s also worth examining how these studies were approved. Several committees, panels and review boards from OHSU provided input and guidance prior to granting Mitalipov permission to do his experiments. OHSU is Mitalipov’s home institution. This raises the spectre of institutional conflict of interest because OHSU stands to benefit from Mitalipov’s research if his work attracts more research funding or enhances the university’s reputation.

In the United Kingdom, the governance and oversight of human embryo research lies in the hands of authorities that are legally regulated and are at arms length to the institutions conducting the research. Ethics review of human embryo research occurs at both the national and regional level. The Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority and the regional research ethics committee reviewed Niakan’s proposal before she could begin her experiments.

The ConversationAs genome editing of human embryos becomes more widespread, it is important to understand the differences between one project and the next so that we can meaningfully discuss the range of ethical, social, political and regulatory issues associated with the research.

Françoise Baylis, Professor and Canada Research Chair in Bioethics and Philosophy, Dalhousie University

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

If you are a woman and think it only happens to you…

If you’re a man, read this too: https://www.globalcitizen.org/en/content/women-interrupted-men-app/

A paragraph for those who won’t click:

“A study from Brigham Young and Princeton Universities found that men tend to dominate 75% of the conversation during conferences. A writer for Slate Magazine found that men in the tech industry interrupt women at twice the rate women interrupted men. An article in the Harvard Crimson student newspaper found that women’s voices were significantly underrepresented in law classes.”

How gender and stereotypes can shape our relationship with dogs

Whose best friend? How gender and stereotypes can shape our relationship with dogs

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One man and his dog.
Pierre Malou, Author provided

Paul McGreevy, University of Sydney and Fiona Probyn-Rapsey, University of Wollongong

The relationship between people and their dogs can be a lasting and loving bond if the match is right. But when acquiring a dog, how do you know if that match will be a good one?

Research shows there is a difference in the way some dogs react to men and women, and it can also matter if the dog is a he or a she.

The challenge lies in understanding the interactions of dogs with humans. And part of that challenge can be influenced by gender stereotypes of both humans and dogs.


Read more: I’ve always wondered: can animals be left- and right-pawed?


This shows why matching dogs to people is far more complicated than we might predict.

Dogs extend their innate social skills to humans.
Paul McGreevy, Author provided

Humans and dogs: a long history

Humans have been co-evolving with dogs for thousands of years. We owe them a lot, including (perhaps surprisingly) the ways in which we experience and express gender via animals.

This often happens in negative ways, such as when women are referred to as bitches, cows, pigs, birds, chicks and men as wolves, pigs, rats. None of these animal metaphors have much to do with the animals themselves but more to do with how we use categories of animals to categorise humans.

So unpacking and challenging gender stereotypes might just also improve the lives of animals too.

A 2006 landmark analysis of gender and dog ownership revealed that owners use their dogs as props to display their own gender identities.

Participants in this study considered female dogs to be less aggressive but more moody than apparently more playful male dogs. They used gender stereotypes not only to select dogs, but also to describe and predict their dog’s behaviour and personality.

Learning to fetch.
Paul McGreevy, Author provided

The potential ramifications of this are important because such flawed predictions about dog behaviour can lead to a person giving up on their dog, which is then surrendered to a shelter.

Once surrendered, an aggressive bitch or uncooperative dog faces a grim future, with most dogs who fail a behavioural assessment being killed, adding to the troubling euthanasia rates in Australia.

That said, the predictive power of behaviour assessment in shelters is being questioned. Some say the ability of such assessments to reliably predict problematic behaviours in future adoptive homes is “vanishingly unlikely”. Moreover, the assessments are likely to be informed by the gendered expectations and behaviours of the humans who assess, surrender or adopt.

A small study in the UK in 1999 observed 30 dogs in shelters when approached by unfamiliar men and women. It found that the female dogs spent less time looking towards all the humans than the male dogs did.

All the dogs barked at and looked towards the women less than the men, which the researchers suggest shows that gender of the potential adopter plays a role in determining what a good match might look like, as well as the likelihood of adoption.

Dogs and bitches may have different motivations.
Paul McGreevy, Author provided

Even the bond that dogs share with their primary care-giver may have gender differences. For example, in a 2008 Australian study (led by one of us, Paul), dog owners reported that male dogs showed elevated levels of separation-related distress compared to female dogs. They also reported that separation-related distress and food-related aggression increased with the number of human adult females in the household.

Desexing, which is more than justified by the animal welfare benefits of population control, also complicates cultural beliefs about appropriate dog gender and may even influence a dog’s problem-solving behaviour. A recent study published this year suggests that desexing may have a more negative effect on female than male dogs when it comes to aspects of cognition.

A study (co-authored by one of us, Paul) published last month, that focused solely on working sheepdogs and their handlers (and so may have limited relevance to domestic companion dogs), is the first report of behavioural differences related to gender difference in both dogs and humans.

Gender stereotypes

These studies underline just how much the lives of dogs depend upon how they conform to gender expectations. In other words, it’s not just how we humans interact with dogs that matters, it’s how our genders interact as well.

While we know how damaging stereotypes can be for humans, dog owners may not consider just how their conceptual baggage of gender stereotypes affects the animals they live with.

Most dogs excel at fitting into our homes and lives.
Paul McGreevy, Author provided

More research can help to shed light on the role that gender plays when it comes to making a good match between humans and their dogs; and by good match, we mean one that will result in a decrease in the likelihood of the dog being surrendered to a shelter or treated badly.


Read more: Curious Kids: How can you tell if your cat is happy and likes you?


The take-home message from these studies is that, to be truly successful mutual companions, dogs don’t need just any human, they need a complimentary human who is open to reflecting critically on gender stereotypes.

Thanks partly to an uncritical adoption of gender stereotypes, the matching of dog and human is currently rudimentary at best. So we should not be surprised if dogs often fail to meet our expectations.

The ConversationWhen relationships go wrong, it’s catastrophic for dogs, because it contributes to euthanasia rates in shelters. These deaths need to be better understood as a broader failure of human understanding about how their own beliefs and behaviour affect the dogs in their lives.

Paul McGreevy, Professor of Animal Behaviour and Animal Welfare Science, University of Sydney and Fiona Probyn-Rapsey, Professor of Humanities and Social Inquiry, University of Wollongong

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