The Health News – 2 December 2015

Overview:
• The Centre for Genetics and Society (CGS) and the activist group Friends of the Earth have called for a global ban on the genetic modification of human embryos, warning the technology could have an irreversible impact on humanity.

• Nearly 35 years have passed since the first reports of deaths from a mysterious illness were finally attributed to the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV). 

• The bill, known as the Health Insurance Amendment (Safety Net) Bill, aims to save the Government more than $260 million by lowering the threshold for some services and capping payments.

News on Health Professional Radio. Today is the 2nd December 2015. Read by Rebecca Foster. Health News

http://www.abc.net.au/news/2015-12-01/call-for-ban-on-human-genetic-modification/6988882

A group of US scientists and activists have called for a global ban on the genetic modification of human embryos, warning the technology could have an irreversible impact on humanity.

The Centre for Genetics and Society (CGS) and the activist group Friends of the Earth issued the report a day before a major international meeting in Washington to discuss the ethical and policy issues surrounding the technology.

A technological innovation that can strategically edit out specific stretches of DNA could ultimately lead to the genetic modification of children, and should be halted before it starts being used, they argued.

“Like so many powerful new technologies, gene editing holds potential for both great benefit and great harm,” an open letter published by the groups said.

… the creation of ‘genetically modified humans’ or ‘designer babies’ — could … alter the nature of the human species and society.

“Gene editing may hold some promise for somatic gene therapy (aimed at treating impaired tissues in a fully formed person).

“However, there is no medical justification for modifying human embryos … in an effort to alter the genes of a future child.”

Consulting researcher with CGS and author of the report Pete Shanks said although the technology was “recently the stuff of science fiction”, the fantasy could become reality.

“Avoiding illness, which we can increasingly do, is very different than manufacturing to order,” he said.

“Kids are unique and should be celebrated for who they are.

“Parenting is challenging — in a good way. It’s about helping your kids be themselves, not some fantasy you invented.

“Once the process [of gene modification] begins, there will be no going back. This is a line we must not cross.”

CGS executive director Marcy Darnovsky said engineering the genes we pass on to our children and future generations would be “highly risky, medically unnecessary, and socially fraught”.

“The worst-case scenarios are pretty horrific: a genetics arms race between nations or within societies, a world in which affluent parents purchase the latest set of upgrades for their offspring, leading to the emergence of genetic ‘haves’ and ‘have nots’ … a world with new forms of inequality, discrimination and conflict,” she said.

http://www.abc.net.au/news/2015-12-01/hiv-and-aids-where-are-we-now/6987758

Nearly 35 years have passed since the first reports of deaths from a mysterious illness were finally attributed to the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV).

During that time, researchers, clinicians, activists and public health professionals have worked hard to decrease the soaring rates of deaths and infections but health experts no longer speak of a cure as a viable goal.

Only one of the approximately 80 million people infected since 1981 is considered truly cured, said Professor Sharon Lewin, director of the Doherty Institute for Infection and Immunity.

Timothy Ray Brown, also known as the Berlin patient, has no HIV in his body after he received a stem cell transplant for leukaemia in 2007 from a person naturally immune to HIV.

Combination antiretroviral therapies revolutionised treatment of HIV from 1995 and today, people on effective daily treatment can have close to a natural lifespan.

Although most people who take antiretroviral therapies have very low or undetectable levels of HIV in their blood, they are not cured and must maintain daily treatment for life.

Ninety-nine per cent of people who stop their treatment will have the virus in their blood two to three weeks later, Professor Lewin said.

One of the newer treatment strategies to flush the virus out of hiding is the so-called “shock and kill” approach.

“Shock and kill is a way of coaxing the virus out of the latent form so it becomes visible to the immune system and then the cell is destroyed. Or sometimes when a virus comes out of a cell, it can then self destruct,” Professor Lewin said.

Recently there have been reports of new drugs that can quite effectively shock the virus, she said.

Professor Lewin’s group has just reported in The Lancet HIV that a drug used for alcoholism…can wake up a dormant virus and is safe to use.

Another experimental treatment is the breakthrough technology of gene editing.

The first application of gene editing in humans was reported last year in people with HIV.

The technique involved removing and treating blood cells with gene scissors or gene editing compounds that eliminated the receptor for HIV, a molecule called CCR5, which is an important protein for the virus.

The modified blood cells are then put back in the patient.

http://www.abc.net.au/news/2015-12-01/medicare-debate-on-hold-amid-strong-opposition/6990314

The Federal Government has suspended discussions on its changes to Medicare following repeated delays in the Senate.

The bill, known as the Health Insurance Amendment (Safety Net) Bill, aims to save the Government more than $260 million by lowering the threshold for some services and capping payments.

It was initially scheduled for debate in the upper house on Monday — ahead of its implementation next month — but was pulled amid strong opposition.

Health Minister Sussan Ley said discussions had been paused while the Government developed its broader Medicare and primary care reform package.