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Scientists fear backlash from gene-edited babies claim could jeopardize research

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Scientists working on the frontiers of medicine fear the uproar over the reported births of gene-edited babies in China could jeopardize promising research into how to alter heredity to fend off a variety of disorders.

Researchers are rapidly learning how to edit DNA to fight such conditions as Huntington’s, Tay-Sachs and hereditary heart disease, conducting legally permissible experiments in lab animals and petri dishes without taking the ultimate step of actually creating babies. Now they worry about a backlash against their work, too.

“The alarmists who claimed that scientists won’t behave responsibly in the development of the next generation of gene editing now have ammunition,” said a dismayed Kyle Orwig, a reproductive specialist at the University of Pittsburgh who hopes to eventually alter sperm production to treat infertility.

He said there is a clear public demand for the kind of research he is doing.

“Families contact me all the time,” he said, including men who can’t produce sperm and aren’t helped by today’s reproductive care.

A Chinese researcher sent a shock wave through the scientific community this week when he claimed to have altered the DNA of embryos in hopes of making them resistant to the AIDS virus. He reported the birth of twin girls and said there may be another pregnancy resulting from his work.

International guidelines for years have said gene editing that can change human heredity — through altered eggs, sperm or embryos — should not be tested in human pregnancies until scientists learn if the practice is safe. One fear is that such experiments could inadvertently damage genes that could then be passed on to future generations.

China has ordered a halt to the seemingly underground experiments by He Jiankui and his team.

Chinese researcher He Jiankui speaks during the Human Genome Editing Conference in Hong Kong on Nov. 28, where his claim that he had helped make the world’s first gene-edited babies shocked scientists and drew widespread condemnation. (Kin Cheung/Associated Press)

“This is what we’re afraid of: Not legitimate scientists — it’s crazy people that would just try it without even worrying about consequences,” said Shoukhrat Mitalipov of the Oregon Health & Science University, who is conducting laboratory-only experiments on how to repair gene defects in human embryos.

If the outcry results in more restrictions being added to the current patchwork of rules on what can be studied and how, the field “will be, probably, thrown back for decades,” he added.

The challenge, said Orwig, is to “convince the community that this is one bad apple but it doesn’t reflect what most people are doing.”

There are multiple kinds of gene editing. Experiments to try to fix damaged genes in children and adults with diseases such as sickle cell are fairly straightforward because that drug-like approach would affect only the patient and not his or her offspring.

Far more contentious is gene editing of the germline, or changing genes in such a way that they will be passed through generations. The big ethical question is whether such tinkering should be restricted to genes that can cause otherwise untreatable disorders, or whether medicine should be free to create designer babies with specific traits, such as high IQ.

“I do think the public is probably open to pretty clearly therapeutic uses of this kind of thing, to prevent transmission of disease. But there’s significant discomfort, if not complete opposition, to enhancement uses,” said Josephine Johnston, an expert on biomedical ethics and policy at the Hastings Center, a bioethics research institute based in Garrison, N.Y.

In a poll last summer, the Pew Research Center found most Americans — about seven in 10 — said changing an unborn baby’s DNA to treat a serious disease the child would otherwise be born with would be appropriate. But support dropped sharply when people were told that it would involve studies with embryos.

And just 19 per cent thought gene editing for such things as enhancing intelligence would be appropriate, Pew found.

How to prove that gene editing is safe enough to legitimately try in human pregnancies is a conundrum, said University of Pennsylvania bioethicist Jonathan Moreno. “No regulator follows that child over a lifetime, much less their progeny,” he noted.

Another question for ethicists: Even if it were deemed safe, is gene editing of embryos really needed given today’s options? Already, families who can afford pricey in vitro fertilization can pay extra to have the embryos genetically tested — and implant only those free of well-known dangerous mutations.

But such pre-implantation diagnosis isn’t an answer for everyone, Johnston cautioned. IVF doesn’t always produce enough embryos for couples to choose among. And as testing uncovers more and more disorders, people will have to understand “there’s not going to be a perfect embryo,” she said.

In Pittsburgh, Orwig sees sperm as offering possibly a more practical first step toward germline editing. Some male infertility is caused by genetic defects that prevent testicular stem cells from properly producing sperm. His team studies infertile men to find culprit genes.

Among his plans: gene-edit stem cells, and implant the repaired ones in infertile mice to see if they produce sperm that lead to healthy baby mice.

The technique could be adjusted so that the genetic change isn’t necessarily passed on to the next generation, he said.

Young women undergoing certain cancer treatments already can store ovarian tissue in hopes of future pregnancy, and Orwig said one day it should be possible to remove, say, a mutation in that tissue that otherwise could spread a family’s breast cancer-causing BRCA mutation.

Meanwhile, careful animal work with sperm could “lay the foundation for how one would do it in humans,” he said. “When societal views change and policies change, we’ll be ready.”

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The ‘Maple Majestic’ wants to be Canada’s homegrown Tesla

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Look out Tesla, Canada has a homegrown electric sedan on the way. Well, that’s if AK International Motor Corporation can drum up enough investment to make its EV a reality. Dubbed the “Maple Majestic,” the vehicle is a battery-electric designed to “excel in extreme climate performance without adversely affecting the climate, as befits a vehicle from Canada,” according to its website.

What’s in a name? — The company says the maple leaf is a “symbol of Canada’s warmth and friendliness towards all cultures,” while “majestic” refers to the country’s “status as a Constitutional Monarchy.”

That patriotism carries over into Maple Majestic’s parent company’s lofty goals. AK Motor founder Arkadiusz Kaminski says he wants the company, which he founded in 2012, to become “Canada’s first multi-brand automotive OEM,” and that the “Maple Majestic is intended to be Canada’s flagship brand of automobiles on the world stage.”

Partnerships are key — “We acknowledge that the best chance for the Maple Majestic brand to succeed, lies in continuing to build the relationship with Canada’s parts suppliers and technological innovators, whether they be academic institutions, corporations, or individual inventors,” the company explains. “We are currently seeking partners in automotive engineering, parts manufacturing, automotive assembly, electric propulsion technology, battery technology, autonomous technology, and hybrid power generation technology.”

In other words, don’t expect to be able to buy a Maple Majestic any time soon… and don’t expect to pour over 0-60 mph times, power output, range, or other key stats, because those don’t currently exist. For now, all we have are pictures and a short video clip. But at least those are arresting.

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PE-backed Quorum Software to merge with Canadian energy tech firm

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Houston-based energy technology company Quorum Software will merge with a Canadian tech firm to bolster its presence in oil and gas services.

Quorum announced Feb. 15 it plans to merge with Calgary, Alberta-based Aucerna, a global provider of planning, execution and reserves software for the energy sector. The combined firm will operate under the Quorum Software brand.

Gene Austin, CEO of Quorum Software, will continue in his capacity as chief executive of the combined firm. Austin, former CEO of Austin-based marketing tech firm Bazaarvoice Inc., became CEO of Quorum in December 2018.

Aucerna co-founder and CEO Wayne Sim will be appointed to the Quorum Software board of directors. Both companies are backed by San Francisco- and Chicago-based private equity firm Thoma Bravo.

“Over the last 20 years, Quorum has become the leading innovator of software deployed by North American energy companies,” said Austin. “Today, Quorum is expanding the scope of our technology and expertise to all energy-producing regions of the globe. Customers everywhere will have access to a cloud technology ecosystem that connects decision-ready data from operations to the boardroom.”

In addition to the merger announcement, Quorum Software announced it had entered into an agreement with Finnish IT firm TietoEvry to purchase TietoEvry’s entire oil and gas business. The agreement, which includes hydrocarbon management, personnel and material logistics software and related services, is valued at 155 million euros, or $188 million, according to a statement from TietoEvry.

“Our three organizations complement each other — from the software that our great people design to the energy markets where we operate,” said Sim. “Our new company will be able to deliver value to our stakeholders, while accelerating the growth of our combined business and the energy industry’s software transformation.”

The combined company will serve over 1,800 energy companies in 55 countries, according to the announcement. With its headquarters in Houston, Quorum will continue to have a significant presence in Calgary and in Norway, the headquarters for TietoEvry’s oil and gas software business. Quorum will have other offices throughout North America, Latin America, Europe, Asia and the Middle East.

As of Sept. 30, 2020, private equity firm Thoma Bravo had more than $73 billion in assets under management. In late December 2020, Thoma Bravo agreed to acquire Richardson, Texas-based tech firm RealPage in a roughly $10 billion acquisition.

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Piece of Kitchener technology lands on Mars on Perseverance rover

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KITCHENER — A piece of Kitchener technology has landed on Mars, thanks to NASA’s Perseverance rover.

The rover settled on the planet’s surface on Thursday afternoon. It’s been travelling through space since it was launched from Cape Canaveral, Fla. in July.

“The whole idea of being on a device that we’re sending to another plant with the express mission of looking for traces of past life, it’s pretty mind boggling actually,” said Rafal Pawluczyk, chief technical officer for FiberTech Optica.

The Kitchener-based company made fibre optic cables for the rover’s SuperCam that will examine samples with a camera, laser and spectrometers.

“The cables that we built take the light from that multiplexer and deliver it to each spectrograph,” Pawluczyk said.

The cables connect a device on the rover to the SuperCam, which will be used to examine rock and soil samples, to spectrometers. They’ll relay information from one device to another.

The project started four years ago with a connection to Los Alamos National Lab, where the instruments connected to the cables were developed.

“We could actually demonstrate we can design something that will meet their really hard engineering requirements,” Pawluczyk said.

The Jezero Crater is where the Perseverance rover, with FiberTech Optica’s technology onboard, landed Thursday. Scientists believe it was once flooded with water and is the best bet for finding any evidence of life. FiberTech’s cables will help that in that search.

Ioannis Haranas, an astrophysicist and professor at Wilfrid Laurier University, said the rover isn’t looking for “green men.”

“They’re looking for microbial, single-cell life, any type of fossils and stuff like that,” Haranas said. “That’s why they chose a special landing site. This could be very fertile land for that.”

“It’s very ambitious,” said Ralf Gellert, a physics professor at the University of Guelph.

Gellert helped with previous rover missions and said it’s the first time a Mars rover has landed without a piece of Guelph technology on it. While he’s not part of Perseverance’s mission, he said the possibilities are exciting.

“Every new landing site is a new piece of the puzzle that you can put together with the new results that we have from the other landing sites,” he said.

“It’s scientifically very interesting because, even though we don’t have an instrument on that rover, we can compare what the new rover Perseverance finds at this new landing site,” he said.

Now that Perseverance has landed on Mars, FiberTech is looking ahead to its next possible mission into space.

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