Scientists propose project to build synthetic human genome

Vaglio, 82, fell and hit his head shortly after disembarking for a sightseeing trip in Bermuda. He was immediately taken to the ship’s medical unit, where a nurse did a cursory examination and said Vaglio should rest in his cabin. What she didn’t know — and a doctor wouldn’t discover until hours later — was that Vaglio had suffered a brain injury that would kill him within days.

For now, the 11th Circuit’s ruling would merely give Pasquale Vaglio’s relatives a chance to prove their claims that the “Explorer of the Seas” medical staff was negligent in his August 2011 death. Unless Royal Caribbean offers a settlement, the Vaglios will have to convince a Miami jury they deserve damages — but Joseph Vaglio said money isn’t the only motivation.

The group also includes experts from Harvard Medical School, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the U.S. government’s Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, Yale University, the University of Edinburgh, Columbia University, the University of California at Berkeley, the University of Washington, Autodesk Bio/Nano Research Group, Bioeconomy Capital and other institutions.

“While cruise ships may have improved their medical facilities in the last 100 years, they should not be punished for it,” Royal Caribbean lawyers wrote in a Dec. 1 rehearing motion. “Royal Caribbean is not in the business of providing health care. It is in the business of providing vacations.”

WASHINGTON, June 2 (Reuters) – A group of scientists on Thursday proposed an ambitious project to create a synthetic human genome, or genetic blueprint, in an endeavor that is bound to raise concerns over the extent to which human life can or should be engineered.

That’s an ultimate goal in the field of synthetic biology – designing organisms that work differently from the way nature intended so scientists can harness them to create designer drugs, biofuels or a range of other products. Scripps’ technology has been licensed by a biotech company Romesberg co-founded, Synthorx Inc., that aims to make novel protein-based drugs.

“We can discern no sound reason in law to carve out a special exemption for all acts of onboard medical negligence,” Circuit Judge Stanley Marcus wrote in the decision. “Much has changed in the quarter-century since Barbetta.”

The group includes scientists from such institutions as Harvard Medical School, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the U.S. government’s Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, Yale University, University of Edinburgh, Columbia University, the University of Washington, Autodesk Bio/Nano Research Group and others.

The new project “will include whole-genome engineering of human cell lines and other organisms of agricultural and public health significance, or those needed to interpret human biological functions,” the scientists, led by geneticist Jef Boeke of the New York University Langone Medical Center, wrote in the journal Science.

Vaglio got steadily worse. After his daughter contacted ship personnel, it took 20 minutes to get a wheelchair to take him from their cabin back to the infirmary. Then there was another delay while credit card information was obtained. Finally, four hours after the accident and suffering from internal bleeding in his skull, Vaglio was examined by the ship’s doctor and sent to a hospital in Bermuda.

The project aims to build such a synthetic genome and test it in cells in the laboratory within 10 years. The project, which arose from an invitation-only meeting of scientists last month at Harvard University that some critics denounced as too secretive, was unveiled in the journal Science by the experts involved.

For more than 100 years, people such as Vaglio’s survivors couldn’t win medical malpractice lawsuits against cruise lines because of exemptions created through a series of court decisions. The most recent is a 1988 ruling known as “Barbetta” that cruise companies such as Royal Caribbean and Carnival regularly relied upon to get malpractice lawsuits thrown out before trial. Courts said passengers should not expect the same level of medical care on a ship as on land, and ships’ doctors and nurses were private contractors beyond the cruise lines’ direct control.

MIAMI (AP) — Pasquale Vaglio, a retired New York City policeman and Korean War veteran, was on the cruise of a lifetime with 18 family members in the summer of 2011 aboard Royal Caribbean’s “Explorer of the Seas.” Then, the accident happened.

In this July 22, 2011, photo provided by Joseph Vaglio, right, shows his father Pasquale Vaglio, left, his grandchildren Joey Vaglio, center, Michael Franza, top left and Brandon Vaglio on board the Royal Caribbean’s “Explorer of the Seas”. Pasquale Vaglio, a retired New York City policeman and Korean War veteran, was on the cruise with 18 family members. Vaglio hit his head after disembarking on a sightseeing trip in Bermuda. He was examined by the ship’s medical unit and told to rest in his cabin. He died a few days later. The Vaglio family has sued the cruise line for medical malpractice and the 11th U.S. Circuit County of Appeals has allowed the suit to move forward in the courts. (AP Photo/Joseph Vaglio)Jef Boeke of New York University’s Langone Medical Center, one of the lead researchers, said this adaptability augured well for building a raft of different designer genomes to address unmet needs in medicine and industry.

New strains of synthetic yeast could be put to work to produce novel medicines, chemicals and biofuels. The work also serves as a foundation for a more ambitious project to synthesize a human genome in the next 10 years.

The result is a platform that offers a way to increase the diversity of proteins made inside living cells, said Jef Boeke, a synthetic biology researcher at New York University who wasn’t involved in Scripps’ work.

The scientists said they hoped to get $100 million in public and private funding to launch the project this year and expect total costs would be less than the $3 billion used for the original Human Genome Project that completely mapped human DNA for the first time.

Speaking in Monaco, where Interpol is holding its general assembly this week, outgoing chief Ronald Noble confirmed that Turkey was a destination, but declined to identify any others. He also refused to indicate how many people might be involved, but called on countries to step up screening at all transportation hubs — “airports and, more and more, cruise lines.”

St. Hilaire said it wasn’t exactly clear yet how many would-be foreign fighters were traveling by cruise ship to reach Syria, and added that there were other options as well: to avoid passing through airports, some people have driven all the way from their homes in Europe to the Syrian border.

This is one of the reasons why the international police body is preparing to expand a pilot program known as I-Checkit, under which airlines bounce passenger information off Interpol’s databases — in hopes that one day the system could expand to include cruise operators, banks, hotels and other private-sector partners.

Techniques for synthesizing DNA are improving all the time and costs are falling. Today, the cost of making each base pair of DNA chemicals is around 10 cents, which researchers said would allow the synthesis of whole genomes to become routine. (Editing by Edmund Blair)

A synthetic human genome potentially could make it possible to create humans who lack biological parents – raising the specter, for instance, of made-to-order human beings with special genetic enhancements.

They said they hoped to get $100 million in public and private funding to launch it this year and expect total costs of less than the $3 billion used for the original Human Genome Project that completely mapped human DNA for the first time in 2003.

WASHINGTON (AP) – Scientists are expanding the genetic code of life, using man-made DNA to create a semi-synthetic strain of bacteria – and new research shows those altered microbes actually worked to produce proteins unlike those found in nature.

Royal Caribbean spokeswoman Cynthia Martinez said the cruise line rejects the Vaglios’ allegations of medical negligence. The company wants the full 11th Circuit to reconsider the three-judge panel’s ruling, contending there is no good reason to abandon a century of law.

According to the family’s lawsuit, after falling and hitting his head, Pasquale Vaglio was seen at the ship’s infirmary by a nurse, who noted a bump and scrape on his head. She neither conducted nor recommended a diagnostic scan, telling Vaglio’s wife to keep an eye on him because he might have a concussion.

“They were getting away with this for a long time and it’s time for it to stop,” he said. “My dad was the nicest guy in the world. When he left early it was kind of weird. It took a lot of years away from me.”

“But as we’ve gathered data, we’ve realized that there are more and more reports that people are using cruise ships in order to get to launch pads, if you will — sort of closer to the conflict zones — of Syria and Iraq.”

Now, a federal appeals court considering the Vaglio case has ruled the exemption should no longer apply. A three-judge panel of the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals — which has jurisdiction over the major Florida-based cruise lines — recently decided Barbetta is outdated law.

“(It) suggests that we can continue to be even bolder in our future designs and make more dramatic changes and really explore the limits of what you can do with a genome to have the yeast do our bidding and make more useful products,” he said.

A missile is fired from Islamic State positions in Kobani, seen from a hilltop outside Suruc, on the Turkey-Syria border Thursday, Nov. 6, 2014. Kobani, also known as Ayn Arab, and its surrounding areas, has been under assault by extremists of the Islamic State group since mid-September and is being defended by Kurdish fighters. (AP Photo/Vadim Ghirda)

The project comes at a time of intense debate over the ethics of using the genome-editing tool CRISPR-Cas9 in human embryos, after Chinese scientists last year published results of a study involving the use of the technique in human embryos, prompting calls for a global ban on such studies.The new project “will include whole-genome engineering of human cell lines and other organisms of agricultural and public health significance, or those needed to interpret human biological functions,” the 25 scientists, led by geneticist Jef Boeke of the New York University Langone Medical Center, wrote in the journal Science.

The international group previously took seven years to build the first yeast chromosome in 2014. The addition of another five demonstrates accelerating progress in the field of synthetic biology, which promises a new era of designer life-forms.

This bacterial strain was “modified in a really dramatic and unusual way at these positions in its genome,” Boeke said. “And that’s what makes it different from every other organism on the planet today.”

The scientists said that was not their aim. They said potential applications from a synthetic human genome include: growing transplantable human organs; engineering immunity to viruses; engineering cancer resistance; and accelerating vaccine and drug development using human cells and organs.

Basic ethical questions still need to be asked, like whether developing the ability to make human genomes is a good idea, wrote Laurie Zoloth, a professor of religious studies and bioethics at Northwestern University, and Drew Endy, an associate professor of bioengineering at Stanford.

“Because they know the airports are monitored more closely now, there’s a use of cruise ships to travel to those areas,” he told the AP on Thursday. “There is evidence that the individuals, especially in Europe, are traveling mostly to Izmit and other places to engage in this type of activity,” he said, referring to a Turkish coastal town.

Many European governments have expressed concern that home-grown jihadis who self-radicalize online and then travel to Syria will return home with skills to carry out terror attacks. Frenchman Mehdi Nemmouche, who allegedly spent a year in Syria and fought with Islamic State, is the chief suspect in a May attack on the Jewish Museum of Brussels that killed four people.

The researchers aim to launch the effort this year after raising $100 million in support from public, private, philanthropic, industry and academic sources from around the world. They said it’s hard to estimate the total cost of the project, but that it’s likely less than the $3 billion Human Genome Project, which revealed the makeup of the human DNA.

Word of a closed meeting about the project leaked out last month. Two observers who criticized that gathering told the AP in a joint statement this week that they were pleased by the Science paper’s commitment to public involvement, but they still had reservations about the project.

WASHINGTON, June 2 (Reuters) – A group of 25 scientists on Thursday proposed an ambitious project to create a synthetic human genome, or genetic blueprint, in an endeavor that is bound to raise concerns over the extent to which human life can or should be engineered.

Turkey, with its long and often porous border with Syria, has been a major thoroughfare for many of the thousands of foreign fighters seeking to join extremists like the Islamic State group, which has captured territory across Iraq and Syria.

The project, which arose from a meeting of scientists last month at Harvard University, aims to build such a synthetic genome and test it in cells in the laboratory within 10 years. The project was unveiled in the journal Science by the experts involved.

“Cruise lines take security as seriously as the airlines, and security procedures are very similar. U.S.-based cruise lines share passenger manifests with U.S. authorities who check against official databases,” Boeke said in an email.

“We are building chromosomes from scratch using relatively simple materials,” said New York University Professor Jef Boeke, who has been working on the project for several years and is in Australia for the launch.

MONACO (AP) — Would-be jihadi fighters are increasingly booking tickets on cruise ships to join extremists in battle zones in Syria and Iraq, hoping to bypass stepped-up efforts to thwart them in neighboring Turkey, Interpol officials have told The Associated Press.

This undated photo provided by The Scripps Research Institute shows a semi-synthetic strain of E. coli bacteria that can churn out novel proteins. Scientists reported on Wednesday, Nov. 29, 2017, that they have expanded the genetic code of life and used man-made DNA to create this strain of bacteria. (Bill Kiosses/The Scripps Research Institute via AP)

“It’s a global threat — 15,000 fighters or more from 81 countries traveling to one specific conflict zone,” he said, noting that that there are some 300 from China alone. “In order to prevent their travel and identify them, there needs to be greater information-sharing among the region, among national security agencies.”

One of the first lessons in high school biology: All life is made up of four DNA building blocks known by the letters A, T, C and G. Paired together, they form DNA’s ladder-like rungs. Now there’s a new rung on that ladder.

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