Podcast: Lab-grown livers coming soon? Regenerative farming won’t stop climate change; COVID halts gene-therapy studies

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A lab-grown mini liver originally derived from human skin cells in the team's bioreactor. Credit: University of Pittsburgh

Scientists have grown tiny human livers from skin cells and transplanted them into rats, moving us closer to saving thousands of lives without organ donations. “Regenerative” agriculture may be an oversold solution to climate change. The coronavirus pandemic has temporarily stopped clinical trials of life-saving gene therapies. A federal court just banned drift-prone dicamba weedkillers, but the EPA says farmers can use them anyway until July 31, igniting a new legal battle over dicamba’s future.

Join geneticist Kevin Folta and GLP editor Cameron English on this episode of Science Facts and Fallacies as they break down these latest news stories:

15,000 Americans are currently on a waiting list to receive liver transplants, all facing life-threatening conditions. Because there is a shortage of organ donors, scientists are constantly searching for alternative solutions—and lab-grown livers are the latest candidate. Such a treatment won’t reach hospitals for many years, but researchers have taken some necessary steps by growing tiny livers from human skin cells and implanting them in rats. The potential is of course enormous, but what sort of ethical implications come with the ability to grow human organs in a lab?

The coronavirus pandemic has left many casualties in its wake, both patients who’ve succumb to COVID-19 and others whose unrelated health care needs have been overlooked. One little-discussed group in the second category is patients suffering from rare conditions that could be treated or cured with gene therapies. Clinical trials of these groundbreaking treatments were halted in early 2020 as hospitals turned their attention to treating SARS-COV-2 patients. While this reallocation of resources was probably necessary, it raises important questions about we develop and increase access to life-saving gene therapies.

Related article:  Podcast: How activists and politicians derailed South Australia's attempt to embrace GMO crops

Regenerative agriculture has been sold to the public as a game-changing solution to climate change. By paying farmers to utilize practices that store carbon in the soil, proponents claim, this alternative approach to modern farming can help us mitigate the potentially devastating effects of global warming. But there’s a critical problem: it probably won’t work.

Over the last four years, farmers, weed scientists, regulators and pesticide makers have been engaged in a low-level war over the herbicide dicamba. Dicamba-resistant GMO crops were released in 2016 and marketed as the latest and greatest weed-control solution for farmers. But when these biotech crops are treated with the herbicide, dicamba can vaporize and travel to neighboring farms and damage non-resistant crops it wasn’t intended for.

A lawsuit led by the anti-GMO Center for Food Safety prompted a federal court to ban three dicamba-based herbicides in mid-June. The EPA has complied with the order, though the agency said farmers can use dicamba until July 31. The battle over the future of this controversial herbicide is nowhere near finished, however, as dicamba makers are attempting to fight the court-imposed ban.

Subscribe to the Science Facts and Fallacies Podcast on iTunes and Spotify.

Kevin M. Folta is a professor in the Horticultural Sciences Department at the University of Florida. Follow Professor Folta on Twitter @kevinfolta

Cameron J. English is the GLP’s senior agricultural genetics and special projects editor. BIO. Follow him on Twitter @camjenglish

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