Illustration of four people helping each other climb progressively taller stacks of books

What’s Missing From Biotech Graduate Education? With Free Course, RA Capital Attempts to Fill the Gaps

By Jessica Sagers

As a PhD student in the life sciences at Harvard, I attended almost every career seminar that came through my inbox. I had no idea what I wanted to do after finishing my research doctorate, but I was certain that it wasn’t more cell culture.

The walls of my academic bubble were so thick that even as a budding cell biologist, I’d managed to hear almost nothing about Boston’s booming biotech industry. “Going into industry” was regarded as an “alternative career,” to the point where it sounded like taking a job outside of academia was tantamount to abandoning science. Besides, all my training had been in basic science. The coursework I’d excelled in, from neurobiology to biophysics, did not equip me to translate what I’d learned to the business world.

During my final PhD year, curiosity about the biotech sector drove me to accept an internship at RA Capital Management, a life science-focused investment firm in Boston. Dr. Peter Kolchinsky (Harvard Program in Virology, ’01), Founder and Managing Partner of RA Capital, brought me and a group of fellow PhD students on board to help achieve his vision of providing more pragmatic, focused training to scientists and professionals interested in working in biotechnology. Together, we designed a short, advanced course on the business of biotech designed to fit the practical needs of late-stage graduate students and early-career professionals.

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The (Possible) “Dark Side” of Gene Editing Technologies

By Shelly Simana

Gene editing technologies enable people to directly change their DNA sequence by adding, removing, or replacing DNA bases. Today, for the first time, as Jennifer Doudna and Samuel Sternberg announced in their book, A Crack in Creation: Gene Editing and the Unthinkable Power to Control Evolution, people “possess the ability to edit not only the DNA of every living human but also the DNA of future generations” (p. xvi). The emergence of new gene editing tools, such as CRISPR-Cas9prime editing, and dubbed SATI, has led to momentous advances in biotechnology as the new tools make gene editing faster, easier, less expensive, and more precise than ever before.

While gene editing technologies offer great promise, they may also introduce risks with far-reaching consequences. This post focuses on the possible “dark side” of gene editing technologies and addresses some threats that the technologies might pose to human lives. While nowadays some of those risks would be deemed “science fiction,” they should be in the back of our minds as we ponder the potential impact of gene editing technologies.

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DNA Phenotyping Experiment on Uighurs Raises Ethical Questions About Informed Consent

By Beatrice Brown

On December 3, The New York Times broke shocking news: China has been using the DNA of Uighurs, a Muslim minority group who have been facing increased persecution, to create an image of a person’s face using a process called DNA phenotyping. The Uighur men were living in Tumxuk (a city in the Xinjiang region), which The New York Times notes being described by Chinese state news media as “one of the gateways and major battlefields for Xinjiang’s security work.” The New York Times introduced many troubling ethical issues, including the potential for increased social surveillance and thus increased “state discrimination” of this vulnerable ethnic minority, but here, I wish to focus on the issue of informed consent.

Informed consent is essential to conducting ethical research. Premised on respecting the autonomy of participants, informed consent requires that participants understand the research that they are consenting to be involved in, including potential risks and benefits of the research. However, what exactly constitutes true, valid informed consent to research is a contentious issue. There are two concerns about the validity of the informed consent process in this DNA phenotyping experiment. Read More

A family of four, two parents and two children, walk down the beach together at sunset.

The (Ante-Mortem) Interest in Genetic Continuity

By Shelly Simana

Omri Shahar was killed in a car accident when he was 25 years old. At his death, Omri’s parents petitioned the Israeli family court for posthumous sperm retrieval. The request was approved yet, one year later, they submitted an additional request—to use the sperm to fertilize a donated egg, implant the embryo in a gestational carrier, and raise the child. The basis of their request was Omri’s interest in “genetic continuity.” This interest is about individuals’ desire to leave a “piece” of themselves in the world and maintain a chain of continuity. It is about perpetuating one’s genes to future generations as a liberal expression of personal identity and a communitarian expression of family heritage. Read More

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Genetic Discrimination in Housing and Lending: What’s the Risk?

By Kaitlyn Dowling, based on research by the Cyberlaw Clinic at the Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society

Illustration of a gavel made out of a DNA helixIn a year-long series on Bill of Health, we’ll be exploring the legal scholarship on genetic non-discrimination. We’ll talk more about GINA and state laws protecting citizens from genetic discrimination. We hope these posts help shed light on this complex and ever-more-relevant area for legal scholars, policymakers, and the public at large. Read the previous posts in the series.

Nondiscrimination in Housing and Lending

Most states regulate the use of genetic information in some way, but protections are typically limited to employment and insurance. To most people, those two areas of protection seem obvious: it’s easy to see why your health insurer would want to know if you’re likely to become expensive to cover. Likewise, you can also understand why potential employers would want to know if they’re about to hire a worker who’s likely to need significant time off to attend to health issues. Only a select number of states ban genetic information discrimination in other contexts, like education, disability insurance, and life insurance.

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The Birth of GINA: An Interview with Jeremy Gruber

By Kaitlyn Dowling

Illustration of a gavel made out of a DNA helixIn a new, year-long series on Bill of Health, we’ll be exploring the legal scholarship on genetic non-discrimination. We’ll talk more about GINA and state laws protecting citizens from genetic discrimination. We hope these posts help shed light on this complex and ever-more-relevant area for legal scholars, policymakers, and the public at large.

The following is an interview with Jeremy Gruber, Senior Vice President at Open Primaries and the former President and Executive Director of the Council for Responsible Genetics. Jeremy Gruber led the passage of the Genetic Information and Nondiscrimination Act and other state-based genetic nondiscrimination legislation. As part of our series on GINA, he offered insights into GINA’s creation and what the future may hold for genetic nondiscrimination. The following interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

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Genetic Testing: Is There a “Duty to Warn” At-Risk Family Members?

By Shelly Simana

Genetic information is quite distinguishable from much medical information due its familial nature and its unique ability to predict future health. The fact that genetic testing supplies comprehensive information about the genetic make-up of patients and their family members underlies the ethical and legal challenges faced by physicians and patients when deciding whether to disclose genetic information to family members. Failure to disclose information may “lead to harm, particularly when knowledge could result in avoidance, treatment, or prevention of a genetic condition or in significant changes to reproductive choices or lifestyle.” Due to the potential harm, one may ask herself if there is a legal “duty to warn” family members about the presence of defective genes, and if so, upon whom should it be imposed.

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Screening vs. Diagnostics: Can Preventive Genomics Clinics Help Healthy Patients?

By Emily Quian

Preventive health clinics at large academic medical centers are one of many changes that allow individuals to be in the driver’s seat of their own health care. While many of these programs have existed for quite some time under the guise of an “executive health clinic” or “executive health services,” the introduction of preventive genetic testing in these clinics is relatively new. Furthermore, there are also clinics dedicated to the specialized area of proactive genomic screening opening up to the general public (who can afford self-pay appointments and testing). Test offerings at these clinics often comprise a suite of screening genetic tests, which differ largely from diagnostic tests.

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Monthly Round-Up of What to Read on Pharma Law and Policy

By Ameet Sarpatwari, Charlie Lee, Frazer Tessema, and Aaron S. Kesselheim

Each month, members of the Program On Regulation, Therapeutics, And Law (PORTAL) review the peer-reviewed medical literature to identify interesting empirical studies, policy analyses, and editorials on health law and policy issues relevant to current or potential future work in the Division.

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On the Tyranny of Partners in Posthumous Reproduction Cases

By Shelly Simana

The topic of posthumous reproduction has produced great interest globally due to the fundamental dilemmas it raises. The most controversial cases are the ones in which there is no explicit consent on behalf of the deceased person for using his or her gametes after death. In those cases, courts try to trace the presumed intentions of the deceased person, heavily relying on testimonies of the deceased’s family members and friends.

I recently published an article about this topic, in which I advocate for a more permissive approach toward posthumous reproduction. In this blog post, I would like to focus on a particular issue—the permission for the deceased’s partner, but not the parents, to engage in posthumous reproduction.

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