Ethicists square off over editing genes in human embryos

WASHINGTON Debate over the use of powerful new gene editing tools in human eggs, sperm and embryos grew heated on Tuesday as scientists and ethicists gathered at an international summit to discuss the technology, which has the power to change the DNA of unborn children.Several groups have already called for restrictions on use of the technology known as CRISPR-Cas9, which has opened up new frontiers in genetic medicine because of its ability to modify genes quickly and efficiently.Hille Haker, chair of Catholic Moral Theology at Loyola University Chicago, argued on Tuesday in favor of a two-year international ban on research that involves changing human reproductive cells, also known as germline cells. Such changes would be passed on to offspring.She argued that such practices violated the freedom of unborn children, who would not have an opportunity to consent to changes in their genetic code.But John Harris, a professor of bioethics at the University of Manchester in Britain, argued strongly in favor of the technology."We all have an inescapable moral duty: To continue with scientific investigation to the point at which we can make a rational choice. We are not yet at that point. It seems to me, consideration of a moratorium is the wrong course. Research is necessary," Harris said. CRISPR-Cas9 works as a type of molecular scissors that can selectively trim away unwanted parts of the genome, and replace it with new stretches of DNA.Advocates have said the technology can speed the day that scientists can prevent hereditary diseases. Opponents worry about unknown effects on future generations and the temptation for future parents to pay for genetic enhancements such as greater intelligence or athletic ability.There appeared to be broad agreement at the meeting that "somatic" cell editing, in which the changes are done in non-reproductive cells and are not passed along, posed few risks. Some scientists believe it is already too late to ban any use of the technology in human reproductive cells because the technology is easily accessible and in widespread use in many labs."It's just not feasible," Debra Mathews of Johns Hopkins Berman Institute of Bioethics told a news briefing on Monday.But researchers and the growing field of well-funded start-up companies that hope to commercialize the technology are clearly worried about possible regulations. Two of those companies, Intellia Therapeutics and CRISPR Therapeutics, issued a joint statement on Tuesday pledging not to use the new tools to edit human eggs, sperm or embryos. Nessan Bermingham, chief executive and founder of Intellia Therapeutics based in Cambridge, Massachusetts, said the discussion over the use of gene editing was very important but also very early."Our understanding of the germline is in its infancy," Bermingham said, adding that scientists' understanding of inherited disorders involving a single gene were much better understood and comprised the area of the greatest medical need.The three-day Washington meeting was convened by the National Academies of Medicine and Sciences, the Chinese Academy of Sciences and the Royal Society of the United Kingdom (Reporting by Julie Steenhuysen; Editing by Jonathan Weber and Peter Cooney) Read more

U.N. condemns air strike that cut water supplies to Syria's Aleppo

GENEVA An air strike on a water treatment plant in Syria last Thursday cut water supplies for 3.5 million people, and although pumping has been partly restored, 1.4 million still have reduced supply, the head of U.N. agency UNICEF in Syria said on Tuesday.“In Syria, the rules of war, including those meant to protect vital civilian infrastructure, continue to be broken on a daily basis," UNICEF's representative in Syria, Hanaa Singer, said in a statement. "The air-strike which reportedly hit al-Khafseh water treatment plant in the northern city of Aleppo last Thursday is a particularly alarming example." (Reporting by Tom Miles; Editing by Catherine Evans) Read more

Nusra Front demands obstruct release of Lebanese soldiers: security chief

BEIRUT Efforts to secure the release of Lebanese soldiers and policemen held captive by the Nusra Front have been obstructed by last minute demands from the Syrian al Qaeda-linked group, the head of a Lebanese security agency was quoted as saying on Monday.Major General Abbas Ibrahim, head of General Security, told al Joumhouria newspaper the government had fulfilled all its commitments to secure their release. The men were expected to be released over the weekend in a deal that would include the release of a number of Islamist prisoners jailed in Lebanon.The security personnel were taken captive in August 2014 during an incursion from by fighters from the Nusra Front and Islamic State into the border town of Arsal. The authorities have been trying to negotiate the release with Qatari mediation."We showed our flexibility on many of the demands by Nusra Front, and completed all the commitments to implement the deal," Ibrahim said. "It got to a point where we could not comply with paralyzing demands that the kidnappers made at the last minute." Four of those held have been killed. Nusra is still holding 16 security personnel, according to a security source. Nine soldiers believed to be held by Islamic State are not included in the negotiations. Local media began circulating reports on Friday that a deal was imminent, but by Monday morning none had been struck. Prime Minister Tammam Salam canceled a trip to Paris for a global climate change summit in order to follow up on the continuing negotiations. Violence from the Syrian war has repeatedly spilled over to Lebanon, with bombings in Beirut, fighting in the northern city of Tripoli, and rocket attacks on Bekaa Valley towns close to the frontier. (Reporting by John Davison; Editing by Tom Perry and Alison Williams) Read more

Lie detectors, solitary: How South Korea screens refugees

SEOUL South Korea has spent decades screening refugees from a hostile neighbor but some enemy agents manage to get through, underlining the challenges Western nations face in dealing with a far larger influx of people escaping the war in Syria.Seoul uses lie detectors, interrogation and a screening process that includes keeping people in solitary confinement to catch North Korean agents among genuine asylum seekers. Still, between 2003 and 2013, of the 49 North Korean spies apprehended in the South, 21 entered the country posing as refugees, according to the country's justice ministry."The question of spies slipping through is always a problem, and we need to make the process more meticulous and advanced," said Shin Kyung-min, the ranking opposition member of the South Korean parliament's intelligence committee."But it's not like we can stop taking in North Korean defectors because of that," Shin told Reuters.There are growing calls in the United States and in Europe to bar tens of thousands of refugees fleeing Syria's civil war following this month's Paris attacks because of concerns that vetting processes are not stringent enough and that extremists planning attacks could slip through. More than 1,000 North Koreans defect to the South every year and are held for up to 180 days while they are screened. If they clear that, the refugees are transferred to a resettlement complex, which they cannot leave, for another 12 weeks to help them adjust to life in the South.New North Korean arrivals to the South, who typically enter via a third country, are brought to a facility in Siheung on the southern outskirts of Seoul. There, they are separated for questioning on their backgrounds and lives in the North, spending time in solitary but comfortable rooms.No exception is made for families or children, who are taken from their parents and face similar questioning, according to a civic group."It was like writing my autobiography," said a 59-year-old female defector who spent three months at the interrogation center from 2012 and asked that she not be named because she is not supposed to talk about the process. "I talked about my whole life in chronological order and got checked," she told Reuters."I came here to change my life so there was nothing that I was afraid of."Lie detectors are used as a basic tool, as many defectors from the isolated and impoverished North are undocumented, a former National Intelligence Service official said.A typical interrogation starts with the defector's address, and the program has built a database with locations, names and other details to compare with their story, Shin, the lawmaker said.The National Intelligence Service declined to comment for this article. The program has succeeded in weeding out about 120 bogus defectors and 14 spies, local media reports last year said, citing intelligence officials. Fake defectors are believed mainly to consist of ethnic Korean citizens of mainland China. The numbers could not be independently verified.Those found not to be North Korean defectors are deported, while those determined to be spies are prosecuted, according to South Korean authorities.SUBMARINES AND GUNFIGHTSPyongyang is believed to have begun sending spies posing as defectors to the South in the late 1990s when large batches of refugees fled a massive, deadly famine. Before that, South Korea occasionally caught armed spies who had infiltrated from across the militarized border, or via small submarines in the dark of night. Some confrontations between North Korean agents and South Korean security forces ended in deadly gunfights."It is not an easy process because they are disguised as refugees, highly trained, dispatched by counter-South espionage agencies," said Jun Ok-hyun, a former deputy director of South Korea's spy agency who retired in 2009."The more defectors come, the stronger the review process should be because it could be easier for North Korea to send spies as fake refugees," he told Reuters.Once refugees are cleared by intelligence officials, they move to a resettlement center where they learn practical aspects of life in the modern, capitalist South, such as using an ATM and the differences in local usage of a common language that has evolved separately during seven decades of division.They also get health checks, nutritional support and vocational training.When defectors leave the resettlement center and move into the general population, police officers are assigned to protect and manage them, according to police officials who declined to elaborate.Shin, the opposition lawmaker, noted that most North Koreans entering the South are genuine refugees and said the screening program is "quite impressive"."The challenge for us is to pick out the spies getting increasingly sophisticated in fabricating their stories." (Editing by Tony Munroe and Raju Gopalakrishnan) Read more

Cubans protest new Ecuador visa regulation

HAVANA Hundreds of Cubans protested at the Ecuadorean embassy in Cuba on Friday, a day after the Andean nation announced they would need visas to enter the country as of Dec. 1.The Cubans waved their passports and plane tickets and said they were angry because they had already bought tickets under the previous no-visa policy of Ecuador and wanted passage or their money back.An Ecuadorean diplomat told the crowd they would have to go online and get a 90-day tourism visa and speak to the airlines about refunds. Cuban police secured the embassy, which they said was closed. There was no violence. "Now they are saying we can't travel to Ecuador because of the Cubans who are skipping out. That's not our fault!" said Ivan Balera, 51, who said he spent over $1,000 on his ticket. The embassy said at a press conference that the web page for applying for the visa is up and running, and Cubans will have to work with airlines to change their tickets if they are not able to obtain a visa in time."Governments can't intervene in commercial policies... However... we are aware that the airlines are willing to issue refunds," said Ecuadorean Consul Soraya Blanca Encalada. Ecuador said it made the decision at a regional meeting on Tuesday in El Salvador to discuss the future of thousands of Cubans stranded at the Costa Rica-Nicaragua border en route to the United States."We decided to impose the visa requirement for Cuban citizens in order to discourage the flow of people seeking to reach the United States," Ecuador's foreign minister, Xavier Lasso, told reporters on Thursday. Thousands of Cubans have traveled to Ecuador over the past decade, some to purchase goods for resale at home and others to settle. Many to use the country as an entry point for making the perilous trek through Central America to the Mexican border with the United States, where they are granted entry and residency, unlike other migrants. The office of Ecuador airline Tame in Havana posted a sign on the door directing Cubans with tickets for after Dec. 1 to contact the embassy. "Nothing has been specified yet. We are supposed to receive instructions on Monday," said a Tame office worker in Havana who declined to give her name. She said it had not yet been decided whether Tame would change its refund policy. (Editing by Marc Frank and Dan Grebler) Read more

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