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China Uses DNA to Map Faces, With Help From the West – The New York Times

Posted: December 6, 2019 at 10:44 pm

TUMXUK, China In a dusty city in the Xinjiang region on Chinas western frontier, the authorities are testing the rules of science.

With a million or more ethnic Uighurs and others from predominantly Muslim minority groups swept up in detentions across Xinjiang, officials in Tumxuk have gathered blood samples from hundreds of Uighurs part of a mass DNA collection effort dogged by questions about consent and how the data will be used.

In Tumxuk, at least, there is a partial answer: Chinese scientists are trying to find a way to use a DNA sample to create an image of a persons face.

The technology, which is also being developed in the United States and elsewhere, is in the early stages of development and can produce rough pictures good enough only to narrow a manhunt or perhaps eliminate suspects. But given the crackdown in Xinjiang, experts on ethics in science worry that China is building a tool that could be used to justify and intensify racial profiling and other state discrimination against Uighurs.

In the long term, experts say, it may even be possible for the Communist government to feed images produced from a DNA sample into the mass surveillance and facial recognition systems that it is building, tightening its grip on society by improving its ability to track dissidents and protesters as well as criminals.

Some of this research is taking place in labs run by Chinas Ministry of Public Security, and at least two Chinese scientists working with the ministry on the technology have received funding from respected institutions in Europe. International scientific journals have published their findings without examining the origin of the DNA used in the studies or vetting the ethical questions raised by collecting such samples in Xinjiang.

In papers, the Chinese scientists said they followed norms set by international associations of scientists, which would require that the men in Tumxuk (pronounced TUM-shook) gave their blood willingly. But in Xinjiang, many people have no choice. The government collects samples under the veneer of a mandatory health checkup program, according to Uighurs who have fled the country. Those placed in internment camps two of which are in Tumxuk also have little choice.

The police prevented reporters from The New York Times from interviewing Tumxuk residents, making verifying consent impossible. Many residents had vanished in any case. On the road to one of the internment camps, an entire neighborhood had been bulldozed into rubble.

Growing numbers of scientists and human rights activists say the Chinese government is exploiting the openness of the international scientific community to harness research into the human genome for questionable purposes.

Already, China is exploring using facial recognition technology to sort people by ethnicity. It is also researching how to use DNA to tell if a person is a Uighur. Research on the genetics behind the faces of Tumxuks men could help bridge the two.

The Chinese government is building essentially technologies used for hunting people, said Mark Munsterhjelm, an assistant professor at the University of Windsor in Ontario who tracks Chinese interest in the technology.

In the world of science, Dr. Munsterhjelm said, theres a kind of culture of complacency that has now given way to complicity.

Sketching someones face based solely on a DNA sample sounds like science fiction. It isnt.

The process is called DNA phenotyping. Scientists use it to analyze genes for traits like skin color, eye color and ancestry. A handful of companies and scientists are trying to perfect the science to create facial images sharp and accurate enough to identify criminals and victims.

The Maryland police used it last year to identify a murder victim. In 2015, the police in North Carolina arrested a man on two counts of murder after crime-scene DNA indicated the killer had fair skin, brown or hazel eyes, dark hair, and little evidence of freckling. The man pleaded guilty.

Despite such examples, experts widely question phenotypings effectiveness. Currently, it often produces facial images that are too smooth or indistinct to look like the face being replicated. DNA cannot indicate other factors that determine how people look, such as age or weight. DNA can reveal gender and ancestry, but the technology can be hit or miss when it comes to generating an image as specific as a face.

Phenotyping also raises ethical issues, said Pilar Ossorio, a professor of law and bioethics at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. The police could use it to round up large numbers of people who resemble a suspect, or use it to target ethnic groups. And the technology raises fundamental issues of consent from those who never wanted to be in a database to begin with.

What the Chinese government is doing should be a warning to everybody who kind of goes along happily thinking, How could anyone be worried about these technologies? Dr. Ossorio said.

With the ability to reconstruct faces, the Chinese police would have yet another genetic tool for social control. The authorities have already gathered millions of DNA samples in Xinjiang. They have also collected data from the hundreds of thousands of Uighurs and members of other minority groups locked up in detention camps in Xinjiang as part of a campaign to stop terrorism. Chinese officials have depicted the camps as benign facilities that offer vocational training, though documents describe prisonlike conditions, while testimonies from many who have been inside cite overcrowding and torture.

Even beyond the Uighurs, China has the worlds largest DNA database, with more than 80 million profiles as of July, according to Chinese news reports.

If I were to find DNA at a crime scene, the first thing I would do is to find a match in the 80 million data set, said Peter Claes, an imaging specialist at the Catholic University of Leuven in Belgium, who has studied DNA-based facial reconstruction for a decade. But what do you do if you dont find a match?

Though the technology is far from accurate, he said, DNA phenotyping can bring a solution.

To unlock the genetic mysteries behind the human face, the police in China turned to Chinese scientists with connections to leading institutions in Europe.

One of them was Tang Kun, a specialist in human genetic diversity at the Shanghai-based Partner Institute for Computational Biology, which was founded in part by the Max Planck Society, a top research group in Germany.

The German organization also provided $22,000 a year in funding to Dr. Tang because he conducted research at an institute affiliated with it, said Christina Beck, a spokeswoman for the Max Planck Society. Dr. Tang said the grant had run out before he began working with the police, according to Dr. Beck.

Another expert involved in the research was Liu Fan, a professor at the Beijing Institute of Genomics who is also an adjunct assistant professor at Erasmus University Medical Center in the Netherlands.

Both were named as authors of a 2018 study on Uighur faces in the journal Hereditas (Beijing), published by the government-backed Chinese Academy of Sciences. They were also listed as authors of a study examining DNA samples taken last year from 612 Uighurs in Tumxuk that appeared in April in Human Genetics, a journal published by Springer Nature, which also publishes the influential journal Nature.

Both papers named numerous other authors, including Li Caixia, chief forensic scientist at the Ministry of Public Security.

In an interview, Dr. Tang said he did not know why he was named as an author of the April paper, though he said it might have been because his graduate students worked on it. He said he had ended his affiliation with the Chinese police in 2017 because he felt their biological samples and research were subpar.

To be frank, you overestimate how genius the Chinese police is, said Dr. Tang, who had recently shut down a business focused on DNA testing and ancestry.

Like other geneticists, Dr. Tang has long been fascinated by Uighurs because their mix of European and East Asian features can help scientists identify genetic variants associated with physical traits. In his earlier studies, he said, he collected blood samples himself from willing subjects.

Dr. Tang said the police approached him in 2016, offering access to DNA samples and funding. At the time, he was a professor at the Partner Institute for Computational Biology, which is run by the Chinese Academy of Sciences but was founded in 2005 in part with funding from the Max Planck Society and still receives some grants and recommendations for researchers from the German group.

Dr. Beck, the Max Planck spokeswoman, said Dr. Tang had told the organization that he began working with the police in 2017, after it had stopped funding his research a year earlier.

But an employment ad on a government website suggests the relationship began earlier. The Ministry of Public Security placed the ad in 2016 seeking a researcher to help explore the DNA of physical appearance traits. It said the person would report to Dr. Tang and to Dr. Li, the ministrys chief forensic scientist.

Dr. Tang did not respond to additional requests for comment. The Max Planck Society said Dr. Tang had not reported his work with the police as required while holding a position at the Partner Institute, which he did not leave until last year.

The Max Planck Society takes this issue very seriously and will ask its ethics council to review the matter, Dr. Beck said.

It is not clear when Dr. Liu, the assistant professor at Erasmus University Medical Center, began working with the Chinese police. Dr. Liu says in his online rsum that he is a visiting professor at the Ministry of Public Security at a lab for on-site traceability technology.

In 2015, while holding a position with Erasmus, he also took a post at the Beijing Institute of Genomics. Two months later, the Beijing institute signed an agreement with the Chinese police to establish an innovation center to study cutting-edge technologies urgently needed by the public security forces, according to the institutes website.

Dr. Liu did not respond to requests for comment.

Erasmus said that Dr. Liu remained employed by the university as a part-time researcher and that his position in China was totally independent of the one in the Netherlands. It added that Dr. Liu had not received any funding from the university for the research papers, though he listed his affiliation with Erasmus on the studies. Erasmus made inquiries about his research and determined there was no need for further action, according to a spokeswoman.

Erasmus added that it could not be held responsible for any research that has not taken place under the auspices of Erasmus by Dr. Liu, even though it continued to employ him.

Still, Dr. Lius work suggests that sources of funding could be mingled.

In September, he was one of seven authors of a paper on height in Europeans published in the journal Forensic Science International. The paper said it was backed by a grant from the European Union and by a grant from Chinas Ministry of Public Security.

Dr. Tang said he was unaware of the origins of the DNA samples examined in the two papers, the 2018 paper in Hereditas (Beijing) and the Human Genetics paper published in April. The publishers of the papers said they were unaware, too.

Hereditas (Beijing) did not respond to a request for comment. Human Genetics said it had to trust scientists who said they had received informed consent from donors. Local ethics committees are generally responsible for verifying that the rules were followed, it said.

Springer Nature said on Monday that it had strengthened its guidelines on papers involving vulnerable groups of people and that it would add notes of concern to previously published papers.

In the papers, the authors said their methods had been approved by the ethics committee of the Institute of Forensic Science of China. That organization is part of the Ministry of Public Security, Chinas police.

With 161,000 residents, most of them Uighurs, the agricultural settlement of Tumxuk is governed by the powerful Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps, a quasi-military organization formed by decommissioned soldiers sent to Xinjiang in the 1950s to develop the region.

The state news media described Tumxuk, which is dotted with police checkpoints, as one of the gateways and major battlefields for Xinjiangs security work.

In January 2018, the town got a high-tech addition: a forensic DNA lab run by the Institute of Forensic Science of China, the same police research group responsible for the work on DNA phenotyping.

Procurement documents showed the lab relied on software systems made by Thermo Fisher Scientific, a Massachusetts company, to work with genetic sequencers that analyze DNA fragments. Thermo Fisher announced in February that it would suspend sales to the region, saying in a statement that it had decided to do so after undertaking fact-specific assessments.

For the Human Genetics study, samples were processed by a higher-end sequencer made by an American firm, Illumina, according to the authors. It is not clear who owned the sequencer. Illumina did not respond to requests for comment.

The police sought to prevent two Times reporters from conducting interviews in Tumxuk, stopping them upon arrival at the airport for interrogation. Government minders then tailed the reporters and later forced them to delete all photos, audio and video recordings taken on their phones in Tumxuk.

Uighurs and human rights groups have said the authorities collected DNA samples, images of irises and other personal data during mandatory health checks.

In an interview, Zhou Fang, the head of the health commission in Tumxuk, said residents voluntarily accepted free health checks under a public health program known as Physicals for All and denied that DNA samples were collected.

Ive never heard of such a thing, he said.

The questions angered Zhao Hai, the deputy head of Tumxuks foreign affairs office. He called a Times reporter shameless for asking a question linking the health checks with the collection of DNA samples.

Do you think America has the ability to do these free health checks? he asked. Only the Communist Party can do that!

Read the rest here:
China Uses DNA to Map Faces, With Help From the West - The New York Times

Recommendation and review posted by G. Smith

The Vanity of the Two Womb Baby – National Review

Posted: December 6, 2019 at 10:44 pm

A medical technician prepares embryo and sperm samples for freezing at the Laboratory of Reproductive Biology CECOS of Tenon Hospital in Paris, France, September 19, 2019. (Benoit Tessier/Reuters)

A two womb baby has been born proving to me that the new reproductive advances promote profound solipsism. From the I-News story:

Scientists have claimed a breakthrough after delivering the worlds first two-womb baby to a British lesbian couple.

Otis, who was born in London in July, grew from a fertilised egg created using IVF treatment incubated in both womens wombs during the course of their pregnancy.

Here is how it was done:

The procedure is carried out by incubating the fertilised egg in one partners uterus rather than in an artificial environment for the first 18 hours following fertilisation, before being transferred to the second partners womb for the duration of the pregnancy.

The mothers are very pleased:

Mothers Donna and Jasmine Francis-Smith were overjoyed by the birth.The procedure really made me and Donna feel quite equal in the whole process and has emotionally brought us closer together, said Jasmine.

Ah, did you catch it? The procedure made them feel equal and closer together. That is a vanity desire that has absolutely nothing to do with the health, safety, and welfare of the gestating baby.

Thats where the focus should be when judging the wisdom of this procedure. We already know that babies born from IVF have a poorer health outlook than babies conceived naturally. This multi-stage process can only increase the potential for problems.

Think about what the entirety of the undertaking: First, the technologists make an embryo in a dish instead of the natural environment of the fallopian tube. Perhaps that is accompanied by PGD that removes a cell for quality control testing. Then, at about ten days development, the embryo is transferred to the first uterus. A day and a half later for no medical purpose the embryo is removed from the first uterus and implanted in the second uterus. As the cherry on top, if many embryos are implanted to ensure that a pregnancy is achieved which is often part of the IVF approach perhaps selective reduction will later be undertaken to prevent multiple births.

Thats a lot of manipulation of life at its most delicate and vulnerable stage! Oh well, if things go wrong, the abortion option is always available.

Those who shush critics of the new reproductive technologies such as three-parent embryos, and human CRISPR germ line genetic engineering by claiming such innovations will only be about health, are full of beans. This technique was designed solely to benefit the mothers, not the baby.

Big fertility desperately needs regulating. But it wont happen. Our contemporary me-me, I-I values wont permit it.

Continued here:
The Vanity of the Two Womb Baby - National Review

Recommendation and review posted by G. Smith

Cuba advances in therapeutic HIV/AIDS vaccine project – OnCubaNews

Posted: December 6, 2019 at 10:44 pm

Cuba is advancing in the development of a therapeutic HIV/AIDS vaccine that has concluded the preclinical studies phase in lab animals and testing in about 20 human volunteers, with results of safety, tolerance and without adverse effects, according to the project leaders.

The product named Teravac-HIV is essentially aimed at inducing an anti-HIV cellular response to reduce the burden of the virus on patients by promoting a functional cure, said principal project specialist Enrique Iglesias.

Cuba has a low incidence of HIV/AIDS epidemic, but there is a high resistance to some of the antiviral compounds we use. In that context, a therapeutic vaccine could contribute to the management of the epidemic, Iglesias told the state newspaper Juventud Rebelde in an article published this Sunday.

There are 26,952 persons on the island infected with the HIV/AIDS virus, 80 percent are male and 82 are between 20 and 54 years old, according to the latest official data on the epidemic released last week.

Of these, 86 percent receive free and controlled antiretroviral therapy, based on a combination of Cuban and other imported antiretroviral drugs, certified by the World Health Organization.

Among those diagnosed, the most affected are transsexual women, with 19.7%, men who have sex with other men (MSM)5.6%and people who practice prostitution, which are 2.8%.

Cuba starts giving out free preventive HIV pill

A genetically engineered vaccine

The Cuban Doctor in Biological Sciences said that the vaccine candidate that the Center for Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology (CIGB) has been developing for several years contains three genetically engineered proteins.

One of these proteins generates the specific immune response against the virus, and two other hepatitis B virus (HBV) proteins were includedone is the active ingredient of the prophylactic vaccineand both can generate immunity against HBV.

The specialist said that at the end of the research phaseof preclinical and toxicological tests in lab animalsa study was designed that included more than 20 HIV-positive patients in good health distributed in two groups.

One group received intranasal and subcutaneous inoculations with Teravac and the other with a placebo. The results of the vaccine candidate showed its safety and tolerance without significant adverse events being reported, said the specialist.

He also indicated that future studies should be aimed at optimizing the dose and immunization plan, among other variables, before there can be certainty of the effectiveness of the vaccine.

Although it is recognized as partially effective, some of the benefits of the future therapeutic vaccine are that it could reduce the financial cost of the therapies, allow their temporary recesses to counteract their side effects and could also reduce transmission by sexual contact.

In addition, it is credited with the possibility of reducing viral diversity in patients, as well as the appearance of resistance mutations, which would enhance the effectiveness of therapies.

Coinciding with the world day against AIDS this December 1, the islands public health authorities affirm that Cuba is the country in Latin America with the lowest prevalence of the virus, and highlighted that they maintain control in transmission in children under 14, heterosexual men and women, among other results.

TERAVAC-VIH: solucin cubana contra el SIDA?

Continued here:
Cuba advances in therapeutic HIV/AIDS vaccine project - OnCubaNews

Recommendation and review posted by G. Smith

Will We Live to Age 120? International Expert Weighs in at Danbury Event – HamletHub

Posted: December 6, 2019 at 10:44 pm

Emerging medical research and cutting-edge technology will dramatically increase human life expectancy and quality of life in the near future, according to a recent fireside chat titled How Do We Make 100 Years Old Our New 60? hosted by Bob Reby, Ambassador of the Fairfield- Westchester Chapter of Singularity University and CEO of Reby Advisors, with special guest Sam Gandy, MD, Ph.D., a prominent internationally recognized expert in neurology and psychology.

Anyone interested in learning more about these medical breakthroughs may watch a video of the event for free on the Reby Advisors website: http://www.rebyadvisors.com/live-events-videos

Dr. Gandy, Chairman Emeritus of the National Medical and Scientific Advisory Council of the Alzheimer's

Association shared new research on human stem cells, genetic codes and the complex hereditary nature of Alzheimers Disease, among other topics.

With regard to stem cell research, Dr. Gandy explained, Its possible now to restore sight and hearing in certain conditions. This was not possible before. These are people who were deaf and blind, doomed to being deaf and blind lifelong.

He continued, Stem cells are the primordial type of cell that can ultimately be differentiated or specialized to form any type of cell in the body. If you have a stem cell from someone, you can then recreate the heart cells or lung cells or brain cells that a particular person has. It can really [lead to] person-based medicine.

Reby also brought up the topic of CRYSPR Genome Editing, and the potential of this research to be used for both good and harm.

CRYSPR is basically gene editing, which means that you can go into the DNA and make changes, edits. If you want to eradicate genetic diseases, it's possible to use this technology to go into an egg, or a sperm, and correct the mutation. So, you could edit out a hereditary disease.

As futuristic as these advancements in medical technology and genetic engineering may be, finding the cure for some complex diseases, like Alzheimers, remains a major challenge.

Most people with Alzheimer's Disease, it's not that simple. The challenge is to find an intervention that we can use beginning in midlife that is safe and will prevent Alzheimer's. Some of the ways that we have of intervening now are not perfectly safe and would not be things that you'd want to give people for 50 years.

The fireside chat was the first event for the Fairfield-Westchester Chapter of Singularity University, a global learning and innovation community using exponential technologies to tack the worlds biggest challenges and build a better future for all.

According to Reby, future events will focus on artificial intelligence, robotics and other exponential technologies. He explained, The reason I like [Singularity University] is their faculty is made up of a lot of business owners, so theyre not just talking about it. Theyre doing it as well.

Community leaders, business owners and technology enthusiasts are encouraged to contact Reby

Advisors if they would like to participate in the Fairfield-Westchester Chapter of Singularity University.

To watch the video of this first event, go to: http://www.rebyadvisors.com/live-events-videos

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Will We Live to Age 120? International Expert Weighs in at Danbury Event - HamletHub

Recommendation and review posted by G. Smith

New Study Explains Connections of the Evolution of Pregnancy and Cancer – Science Times

Posted: December 6, 2019 at 10:44 pm

(Photo : Photo by seligmanwaite on Foter.com / CC BY) Results of the new study show that some placental mammals like cows are more resistant to skin cancer compared to humans.

One of mammals' winning designs for survival is pregnancy and the ability to nurture its young inside the womb to be fully adapted upon birth. However, a new study shows that there are connections between the evolution of pregnancy and the spread of cancer among placental mammals.

PLACENTAL MAMMALS AND THE RISK OF CANCER

There are three types of mammals: the marsupials (those who develop their young in 'pouches'), monotremes (mammals that lay eggs), and placental mammals -- technically known as the eutherians -- or those that develop their young in the womb and facilitates the exchange of nutrients through an organ called placenta. Most mammal species, including humans, are classified under placental mammals, and this is where the connection between pregnancy and cancer starts.

It is observed that the placenta invades the uterus in a similar way a cancer cell invades tissues in its vicinity during metastasis. However, a study discovers that the high risk for cancer -- specifically skin cancer -- among placental mammals are not observed with bovines and equines even though they are placental mammals as well.

Scientists from Yale's Systems of Biology Institute analyzed the evolution of invasibility of the connecting stromal tissue, which affects both placental and cancer invasion.In a press releaseissued by Yale University, Gunter Wagner, a professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at the university and the study's senior author explains, "Previous research has shown that cancer progression in humans includes the reactivation of embryonic gene expression normally controlling placenta development and immune evasion." He adds that the team would like to find out why melanoma may acquire in pigs, cows, and horses, but it will always be benign, unlike when it occurs in humans where it will almost automatically be malignant.

The study by Wagner and his team has beenpublished on Nature Ecology & Evolution--it focuses on the differences between cows and humans in terms of the rates of cancer cell division. The team worked with in-vitro models and gene expression manipulation to be able to identify genes that can affect the vulnerability of the human stroma when being invaded by cancer cells. This methodology is spearheaded by Dr. Kshitiz, a research associate at the university's Levchenko laboratory and a professor of Biomedical Engineering.

Based on the results of the study, the researchers behind this study modified a certain group of genes in human fibroblast cells to make it similar to the genetic profile in cow cells. These modified cells, in turn, showed strong resistance to melanoma when tested. The results also showed that these differences might be caused by species differences in resistance of stromal cells against invasion.

According to the study, the high risk of cancer among humans and the high level of metastatic potential of cancer in the species could be a consequence of some evolutionary compromise to have better fetuses for a higher chance of species survival.

The researchers, on the other hand, are optimistic about the results of this study. It was able to provide an insight into how to deal with cancer and how to make human cells more resistant to it. Gene modification could certainly lead to therapies to make tumors manageable.

Read more from the original source:
New Study Explains Connections of the Evolution of Pregnancy and Cancer - Science Times

Recommendation and review posted by G. Smith

Hopkins team invents non-viral system for getting gene therapy into cells – FierceBiotech

Posted: December 6, 2019 at 10:42 pm

One of the most popular methods for inserting therapeutic genes into cells to treat disease is to transport them using a virus that has been stripped of its infectious properties. But those noninfectious viruses can still sometimes touch off dangerous immune responses.

A team from Johns Hopkins Medicine is proposing an alternative method for transporting large therapies into cellsincluding genes and even the gene-editing system CRISPR. Its a nano-container made of a polymer that biodegrades once its inside the cell, unleashing the therapy. The researchers described the invention in the journal Science Advances.

The team, led by biomedical engineer Jordan Green, Ph.D., was inspired by viruses, which have many properties that make them ideal transport vehicles. They have both negative and positive charges, for example, which allows them to get close to cells. So Green and his colleagues developed a polymer containing four molecules with both positive and negative charges. They used it to make a container that interacts with the cell membrane and is eventually engulfed by it.

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The Hopkins researchers performed four experiments to prove the nanocontainers would travel into cells and deliver complex therapies once inside. First, they packaged a small protein into the polymer material and mixed it with mouse kidney cells in a lab dish. Using fluorescent tags, they confirmed that the protein made it into the cells. Then they repeated the experiment with a much larger medicinehuman immunoglobulinand observed that 90% of the kidney cells received the treatment.

From there, they made the payload even bulkier, packaging the nanocontainers with the gene-editing system CRISPR. With the help of fluorescent signals, they were able to confirm that CRISPR went to work once inside the cells, disabling a gene 77% of the time.

"That's pretty effective considering, with other gene-editing systems, you might get the correct gene-cutting result less than 10 percent of the time," said graduate student Yuan Rui in a statement.

Finally, the Hopkins researchers injected CRISPR components into mouse models of brain cancer using the polymer nanocontainers. Again they saw evidence that successful gene editing had occurred.

Developing improved methods for gene therapy is a priority in the field. In October, for example, scientists at Scripps Research described a way to use a small molecule called caraphenol A to lower levels of interferon-induced transmembrane (IFITM) proteins, which could, in turn, allow viral vectors to pass more easily into cells. And earlier this year, an Italian team described a method for including the protein CD47 in lentiviral vectors to improve the transferring of therapeutic genes into liver cells.

The next step for Hopkins researchers Rui and Green is to improve the stability of the nanocontainers so they can be injected into the bloodstream. They hope to be able to target them to cells that have certain genetic markers, they reported.

Link:
Hopkins team invents non-viral system for getting gene therapy into cells - FierceBiotech

Recommendation and review posted by G. Smith


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