Tuesday 26 June 2018

Headline fail: "Autism traits could be 'edited' out genetic trial suggests"

The Telegraph June 25 2018
"Autism traits could be 'edited' out genetic trial suggests" was one of the headlines that accompanied the publication of the findings by Bumwhee Lee and colleagues [1].

The Lee article details some interesting science following the use of something called CRISPR-Cas9 gene editing (see here) or more precisely the use of a new-ish development to this technique - "CRISPR–Gold, a nonviral delivery vehicle for the CRISPR–Cas9 ribonucleoprotein." CRISPR is one of the hottest things in science at the moment, as the words 'find, cut and paste' move to a genetic level (see here) and promises so much. In the Lee study, the target was the metabotropic glutamate receptor 5 (mGluR5) gene as a move to "efficiently reduce local mGluR5 levels in the striatum."

Oh, did I also mention that this research was done using mice? Indeed, this was a study of mice engineered to display some of the molecular and behavioural characteristics of a condition called Fragile X syndrome (FXS). As such, authors reported that the use of CRISPR-Gold injections into the striatum of said FXS mice correlated with a reduction in certain behaviours such as obsessive digging and leaping into the air. The authors opine that such behaviours 'overlap' with those noted in autism (FXS has a 'connection' to autism) and voilà, a link to autism is made.

Aside from that brief overview of the findings from Lee et al just mentioned, I'm not going to go too much into the nitty-gritty of the actual results. A cobbler should stick to his last and all that, and others have done a far better job than I ever could in discussing the science (see here). I do however want to make a case that the 'autism traits could be edited out' headline represents a fail when covering the Lee findings.

I say 'headline fail' in the title of this post because well, it is. Not only does it assume that obsessive digging and sporadic leaping into the air made by mice are singularly autistic traits, it takes a few sentences before the word 'mice' is even mentioned in the coverage. I've talked before about the caution(s) needed when translating animal findings to real people (see here) and how autism in particular, seems to be a label ripe for mass sweeping generalisations from 'autistic animals' to autistic people. I'm not saying that some of the features of autism are uniquely human (see here) but rather that is it premature to even imply that the traits of autism can be 'edited out' on the basis of a single mouse or other animal genetic study.

I've already mentioned about a 'connection' between FXS and autism but it is perhaps also important to realise that there seem to be many routes that bring someone to a diagnosis of autism. FXS is one condition that manifests autistic traits but it is not the only one and certainly science does not yet know everything there is to know about the genetics of autism and FXS. And just before anyone starts talking about autism being universally 'in-born' and 'genetic' as it is [assumed] in FXS, well, the peer-reviewed research evidence might just disagree with you (see here for one example)...

Finally there's another aspect to this work that requires sensitive media handling: the ethics of 'editing out' autistic traits. I know this is a 'hot potato' area, as an increasingly vocal - certainly on social media - group of people on the autism spectrum talk about their strengths as well as their disabilities. Much of this discussion is framed around the notion that autism is not something separate from who they are but rather a fundamental part of who they are. If one takes this viewpoint, it is logical to assume that 'editing out' autistic traits might mean something rather ominous to some people...

The point I'm trying to get across is that the Lee paper is seemingly good science. It faithfully reported the results of an exciting new technology that holds promise for many different labels, conditions and diseases (see here). The issue however, is that the reporting of such research needs to be accurate and responsible. Headlines in particular, need to mention the word 'mouse' if it was a mouse study. They need to avoid sweeping generalisations that infer that digging and leaping behaviour in animals are generalisable as autistic traits (certainly the latest ICD-11 schedule says nothing about such behaviours), and they need to be sensitive to the fact that 'editing out' may very well provoke significant anxiety among some people on the autism spectrum. All for the sake of an attention-grabbing headline...


[1] Lee B. et al. Nanoparticle delivery of CRISPR into the brain rescues a mouse model of fragile X syndrome from exaggerated repetitive behaviours. Nature Biomedical Engineering. 2018. June 25.


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