Casgevy: bioethical concerns should not be written off just yet — even though the treatment has been approved

On BioEdge, Dr Patrick Foong and I quickly run through the bioethical perturbations that have come with the relatively rapid approval of Casgevy, the first-ever approved genome-editing therapy that utilises CRISPR/Cas 9. In some ways, it could be said that Casgevy is the first-ever approved genome therapy ‘full-stop’, because other categories of gene therapy have not been understood to create ‘edits’ to the human genome, as such.

For instance, Luxturna (and other AAV therapies) are used to ‘swap out’ mutated genes with ‘healthy’ or unmutated versions of the same. While this may seem like an ‘edit,’ it is also arguably a form of “gene replacement therapy.”

Similarly, forms of therapy using CAR T cells have been characterised as therapies that use cell reprogramming or engineering, rather than cell ‘editing,’ to create their therapeutic effects. This is because the immune cells that are extracted from a patient in a CAR T therapy process, and then reprogrammed to recognise and target cancer cells, is not as much a process by which genes or cells are ‘edited’ as much as one in which they are adapted, ex vivo.

As I have noted previously on Cells and Statutes, one of the most concerning aspects of the process in which Casgevy was approved was that the admitted lack of acceptable data about so-called off-target effects was not deal-breaker: neither for the FDA in the United States nor the MHRA in the United Kingdom.

Closer to home, it will be interesting to see what happens when an evidence dossier lands with the Australian regulator: the TGA. Given the ongoing pivot towards making cell and gene therapies faster to approve, the broader governmental investment in cell and gene therapies (see the 2021 senate inquiry on the future of cell and gene therapy here), and the historical tendency of the TGA to follow the FDA’s decisions, both for scientific and regulatory reasons, I suspect it will be approved without too much agony.

November–December 2023 updates: AABHL presentation; thalidomide apology; unlawful welfare convictions

Just a quick blog post to note a few news items

  • In late November, I presented the following presentation remotely at the Australasian Association of Bioethics and Heath Law (AABHL) on ‘risk-based regulation.’ My abstract was as follows:

What risk? A critical analysis of risk-based regulation of therapeutic goods, from stem cell medicine to osseointegration devices

Therapeutic goods (medicines, biologicals and devices) are regulated both in Australia and globally via ‘risk-based regulation’ (RBR). Recently, the OECD has described RBR as rules that are ‘science-based, targeted, effective and efficient,’ invoking the paradigmatic ‘risk-benefit analysis.’ But, as this paper contends, this description is misleading. In essence, RBR is neither health-focused nor harm-minimising but about ‘less-is-more’ governance. As with other neoliberal creations, RBR’s aim has been to prioritise private sector remediation (eg, civil litigation) and self-regulation over centralised governmental control. While the impact of RBR in the financial sector has been studied in detail, scarce legal scholarship has examined the state’s devolution of responsibility and control over therapeutic goods law to private individuals and organisations, such as hospitals or private practitioners.

As this paper will illustrate, while therapeutic goods legislation does control risk and experimentation (‘innovation’), it does so only for high-risk therapies: ie, those ‘worth’ regulating. Two examples are on point: the practice of stem-cell medicine and the use of osseointegration devices. In pursuit of efficiency, RBR eschews ‘overregulation’ and avoids duplication of oversight and enforcement. In concert with the Australian Civil Liability Acts, RBR has arguably achieved its implicit goal of ‘deresponsibilisation.’ However, a regulatory vacuum for unregulated or unapproved experimentation, creating confusion among practitioners and leaving regulators open to accusations of arbitrary decision-making. While better ‘upfront’ guidance for practitioners may assist, I contend that better-publicised reasons by regulators will enhance standard-setting.

A video recording of the presentation is below:

  • On 7 December, I was quoted in the Guardian in a story written by Paul Karp about two people remain in jail for welfare fraud offences based on defective and unlawful evidence. That defectiveness and unlawfulness has been recognised by the Ombudsman and the welfare agencies, and even, seemingly, the Cth Director of Public Prosecutions. I make the point that more should be done to facilitate the review of these cases. The CDPP have disclosure obligations, but it appears to me that the nature of the disclosures may be narrow (notifying of a potential problem) or broad (giving detail as to the nature of the evidentiary issues). The story is here.

Chimeric monkey sheds light on what can be done with embryonic stem cells

I was quoted in this article today regarding a newly published study in Cell that demonstrates, in the author’s words, that ‘mammalian pluripotent stem cells possess preimplantation embryonic cell-like (naive) pluripotency.’ As the summary notes, this discovery about embryonic stem cells can now be said to have been demonstrated experimentally through the generation of a chimeric animal — a monkey whose embryonic development has been ‘complemented’ by homologous embryonic stem cells derived from another ‘donated’ line of cells. The monkey, in short, has developed from a blastocyst that is a compound of two embryonic stem cell lines.

Unsurprisingly, news stories have been focusing on one of the eye-grabbing aspects of this experiment: that the monkey in question has fluorescent green fingers and eyes. Unfortunately, the monkey died after only 10 days — which is still the longest period of time for which such a chimeric organism has lived before.

The reason that the monkey has these features is because the researchers used green fluorescent protein (GFP) to ‘label’ the embryonic stem cells (ESCs) that were incorporated into the host embryo at the blastocyst stage. And so what one is looking at when one sees the monkey with green fingers and eyes (visible even to the naked eye) is visual evidence that the embryonic stem cells have survived the process of being ‘complemented’ into the blastocyst of the host monkey and have spread throughout its body. In other words, the cells have been incorporated into the monkey’s cellular DNA; the monkey has both its ‘natural’ DNA and a ‘foreign’ line of DNA. Indeed, as the images indicate, there is a proliferation of these complemented ESCs throughout the monkey’s organs, including plenty in the brain and ileum (small intestine).

As the ‘Highlights’ section of the article points out, when these embryonic stem cells (ESCs) in the body of the monkey were ‘characterised’ (assessed), it was revealed that they remained in a so-called pluripotent state. In other words, the ESCs seem to have been able to differentiate into the different kinds of cellular categories: glial (brain) cells, heart cells (myocytes), lung cells (epithelial cells), and so on. Indeed, they continue to be in this pluripotent state, even as they maintain a ‘functional’ presence in the monkey’s body.

The news.com.au story quotes me as follows:

Sydney University lecturer in health law Dr Christopher Rudge told new.com.au the medical experiment had been on the cards for a long time.

“This is another step along the journey,” he said.

“The advancement here is that scientists have never been able to show such a prolific survival / proliferation of donated (or ‘complemented’) embryonic cells through a single organism.

“You’ve got more of these donated or secondary cells throughout the organism in a mammal.”

But he cautioned whether it would lead to anything substantive.

“Regenerative medicine has been hyped since the late 1990s,” he said. “Unfortunately it has not borne fruit.”

See https://www.news.com.au/technology/science/stunning-monkey-born-with-glowing-eyes-and-fingers/news-story/27d84700628476da1579968e76cbda5d

Obviously this scientific study demonstrates that certain new techniques can be adopted to expand the capacity of scientists to create chimeras. Scientists have long had the capacity to infuse mouse and rat blastocysts with pluripotent stem cells to generate live chimeric animals that feature this high proliferation of homologous cells. What is new here is that this capacity now extends to non-human primates — a species of animal much closer, in evolutionary terms, to humans.

It is arguably another step along the way in discovering how stem cells, including pluripotent embryonic stem cells, can be used as technologies of biological inquiry (for diagnosis, and to study developmental mechanisms) and, ultimately, to biological treatments. Of course, there is still so much more to learn.

Whether an experiment of this nature would be approved in Australia is an interesting question. If nothing else, this finding indicates that discoveries in stem cell medicine are continuing apace. Of course, given that this involved the effective fusing of two monkey embryos (or embryonic cell lines), the more serious bioethical questions regarding human-monkey chimeras, which have been posed before, do not arise in this instance.

New book chapter on law/bioethics of somatic cell genome editing (and sickle-cell diseases)

After a long journey that should have been no surprise whatsoever (not when one looks at the scale and size of this volume), a book chapter I authored with Emeritus Distinguished Prof Dianne Nicol from the University of Tasmania’s Centre for Law and Genetics, way back in 2021, has now been published.

The chapter deals with the bioethics of somatic cell genome editing, which, so it is said — and as the literature mostly suggests — does not raise many ethical issues at all. But that, of course, is not quite right. ‘SCGE’ — like all cellular therapies — presents an array of bioethical and biopolitical challenges to patients, including those related to safety and accessibility.

This is not least because those treatments that are now emerging, the frontrunner among which is exa-cel (previously CTX-001), are designed to treat hemoglobinopathies — that is, blood diseases — that disproportionately impact people in sub-Saharan Africa. And it appears they will be prohibitively expensive.

Additionally, the treatment of these disorders may have impacts beyond our current predictions. After all, the sickle-shaped red blood cells (RBCs) that this treatment will treat and resolve have also been identified as providing protection against malaria. That’s because haem — a component of haemoglobin — was found to confer advantage in experimental studies.

In essence, haem, which is present in a free form in the RBCs of mice with the sickle cell trait, but mostly absent from mice without the trait, seems to protect against malaria. When mice without sickle cells were injected with haem, and then later infected with malaria, it was found that the injected haem helped to guard against malaria in those previously normal — and malaria-unprotected — mice. It follows, as the authors note, that ‘Sickle human hemoglobin (Hb) confers a survival advantage to individuals living in endemic areas of malaria, the disease caused by Plasmodium infection.’ The question, then, is whether this conferred advantage will change at all among those who are treated for sickle-cell diseases, such as beta thalassemia, with exa-cel. I should note, however, this is not a question explicitly addressed in the chapter.

Instead, our chapter deals with the technical history of somatic cell genome editing, and the way in which this form of genome editing is different to heritable genome editing. SCGE is not heritable because it is performed on post-natal humans whose gametes (reproductive cells) have fully materialised and developed. Once the gametes have developed, they maintain their genomic content for life (as far as we know). By contrast, genome editing prior to fertilisation (ie, genome editing performed on IVF or ART embryonic cells prior to their being fertilised) is heritable, and will carry over to the future generations.

Although the science of SCGE might sound relatively boring when compared to heritable human genome editing, it really is not. For a start, SCGE is happening right now. It could be decades — perhaps centuries — before we start editing pre-fertilised human embryos using CRISPR Cas-9. But we are using the same technology — CRISPR Cas-9 endonucleases — on adult stem cells today. Speaking generally of SCGE (and not specifically about exa-cel), the process is essentially this:

  • cells are removed from the adult patient’s body;
  • the patient undergoes ablative therapy to kill all pathogenic/diseased cells (eg, the sickle RBCs) in their body (and clearly they are in a very serious condition at this time);
  • the patient’s removed cells are shipped off to a laboratory, where they are subjected to the action of the endonuclease (the CRISPR) through flow electroporation or a similar technique (which enables the CRISPR to work by manipulating the materials at a nuclear level);
  • the resulting ‘product’ of the ‘manufacturing’ process is the therapeutic good (ie, exa-cel)
  • the CRISPR-Cas is essentially a cutting and repair tool that cuts and then repairs double-strand breaks in human DNA (changing the nucleotides as it repairs them);
  • the repairs created by the CRISPR-Cas are ‘guided’ or played out on a ‘template’; and
  • the edited cells, which are not affected by disease (because they have been edited) are then reinfused into the body, and replace the cells that existed previously

There is much more to say about SCGE, but that is all in the chapter. I also wrote about it earlier this year, on this website, here.

But it’s great to have the book chapter finally out there. I attach a few images of the contents pages to illustrate the huge scope of the volume — which is one of two. The book’s full title is the Handbook of Bioethical Decisions, Volume I: Decisions at the Bench. It is edited by Erick Valdés and Juan Alberto Lecaros, whom I thank for including our chapter; and it is published by Springer.