@Risk
Thursday, November 23, 2017

Gene Control

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In the January 2, 2017 issue of the New Yorker, Michael Specter authored a piece on the genetic editing project spearheaded by Kevin Esvelt, assistant professor of biological engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Esvelt, a young scientist, has invented technology that would enable a degree of gene modification that could fundamentally alter the natural world. Esvelt’s revolutionary technology—a combination of the gene-editing tool CRISPR with a gene drive—can in theory be used to eradicate diseases altogether, ranging from malaria, to Lyme disease, to cancer.

Hundreds of research institutions around the world are identifying and analyzing various aspects of genes. In addition, thousands of companies are busy developing related commercial products and services designed to offer improvements in medicine, agriculture, reproduction, forensics, skin care, athletic performance, and many other domains. But beyond this explosion of research lies the uncertainty of exactly what the manipulation of the genes of humans and other living organisms will mean for each of us individually, as well as to the world around us.

The moment we start to talk about manipulating the genetic code, political and theological concerns enter the equation. The resulting discussions are infused with values-based notions of what is right and what is wrong, and questions arise about whether we ought to undertake certain scientific activities just because we can. For better or worse, Esvelt has placed us on the first lap of a biological revolution—with all of its potential promise, and all of its potential threat.

For Esvelt, the project does not signal a direct manipulation of the human code, but instead figuring out how to cure diseases and understand the workings of life. Esvelt says that he will not shy away from his role in this grand exploration out of fear that someone might engage in questionable human engineering. And we don’t want him to, because his progress will someday bring us enormous benefits. But speaking loosely about the capabilities of the future, and how one day kids will be granted genes that enhance their beauty, intelligence, or athletic ability is one thing. Another is being able to do so today.

Like many girls her age, Molly plays a sport and likes school. Except Molly was not always able to blend in so well. When born, Molly was taken away from the hands of her mother quickly, with whispers that there were abnormalities. It turned out Molly had a rare generic disease called Fanconi’s anemia, and both parents were unknown carriers. Because of this genetic mutation, Molly was born with no thumbs, a perforated heart, and deafness in one ear. To save their daughter’s life, Molly’s parents embarked on a controversial treatment called preimplantation genetic diagnosis or PGD. This treatment allowed Molly’s parents to conceive her little brother Adam, who would later donate his umbilical cord blood to his sister. In a sense, Adam was a designer baby, specifically designed to save Molly’s life.

Matt and Denise Rominger are the first couple known to have screened their embryos for Huntington’s chorea, a fatal genetic disease. Matt’s mother died from the disease, as have several others of Matt’s relatives. Matt, too, was tested and revealed to be a carrier. His children would inherit a 50 percent chance of dying from Huntington’s. Matt and Denise went ahead with the screening, and today have two twin daughters who are healthy and happy.

A Virginia-based fertility clinic called the Genetics and IVF Institute (GIVF) runs ads in the Style section of The New York Times. The ads suggest that people may want to remove boy embryos because of certain male-carried diseases, or sort out girls because of “family balancing issues.” GIVF says it has the technology—called MicroSort—that allows them to do just that. Parents can use in-vitro fertilization to fertilize eggs and then separate out the correctly sexed embryos via PGD.

On human chromosome 14, a gene called TEP1 codes for a protein that forms a part of a chemical known as telomerase. Some cells turn immortal if you give them enough telomerase. To that end, molecular biologist Cynthia Kenyon believes we can slow aging, and she has been experimenting with worms to prove it. Kenyon succeeded in prolonging the lifespan of her worms far past their normal two weeks. Some of her worms live as long as twelve weeks—six times their typical lifespan. Her team tinkered with a few genes, confirming Kenyon’s suspicion that genes do regulate aging.

Advances in the fields of bio-informatics, artificial intelligence, and computer design have clearly demonstrated the ability to reshape the course of human biology. In a Hollywood film, Johnny Mnemonic, Keanu Reeves comes dangerously close to depicting the potential reality of technological revolution, playing a character that begins to physically deteriorate due to an oversized data file downloaded into the back of his head. The film focuses on the unpleasant union of biology and technology—filled with violent images and wrecked cities due to technology run amuck. This is merely entertainment, but man is already dreaming up ways of enhancing human intelligence by embedding computer chips that would transcend the complicated interface between the nervous system and a silicon device.

Genetic modifications such as these raise controversial questions. Should we genetically optimize ourselves, and when, if ever, is enhancement ethically acceptable?

Most parents today work very hard to enhance their children’s likelihood of success through a myriad of strategies, including tutoring prep to guarantee acceptance at a good school, extracurricular lessons, and sports and exercise to ensure good health. Similarly, geneticists believe that genetics ought to serve human ends. However, to which end is modification acceptable, and why?

It is interesting to sharpen the discussion by highlighting the fact that, when we are healthy, we may very well convince ourselves that we do not need brain enhancements, nor any other type of a biologically engineered technology. We cite ethics and we write about the risks inherent in these types of advancements. But when our bodies begin to deteriorate, or when they are simply not able to do what they are designed to do, reality becomes burdensome indeed.

Some fifty years ago, wonder drugs such as penicillin and streptomycin promised a rapid end to bacterial infection, only to be wiped away by the emergence of multidrug resistance. Physicians have implanted electrodes in the cochlea of the human ear to restore basic hearing ability in people who lost that function. Not so long ago—in 2001—doctors began to implant battery-powered hearts in people whose own damaged hearts could barely keep them alive.

Predictions of the imminent dangers of biological revolution ignore the degree to which we humans want to stay human, foregoing modifications. Expanding our minds and enhancing our physical capabilities is certainly seductive, but until our bodies lose their vitality or are ravaged by disease and old age, few of us actually want to replace anything within ourselves. The ability to give birth to children without a genetic predisposition for a disorder is a bit different from enhancing ourselves by way of gene editing or a biotechnological device. The future of AI and genetic revolution might be interesting conversational topics, but until they are affordable and easy to implement, the concepts aren’t currently much of a threat.

One recurring topic of discussion, however, is human genetic enhancement of intelligence. Can we make ourselves smarter? Can we make our children and our grandchildren more intelligent?

Interestingly enough, because of the technology we have invented (specifically, calculators and computers), individuals no longer have the need to themselves do the kind of complicated arithmetic analysis that was so prized in the past. No one bothers with this anymore. Parents might worry about their children’s inability to divide 60 by 5, but as a civilization, we will certainly survive. Technology simply made this type of intellectual ability unimportant. So why would we augment our brains with abilities that are meaningless?

Memory is much the same. In today’s busy world, we see so many people relying on automated, electronic organizers and smartphones to keep track of their schedules and to-do lists. As we perfect these devices, and have them learn to anticipate our needs, the ideal of a “good, working memory” is virtually useless. By the time we can come up with an enhancement for human memory, we might instead choose to walk away from this option, unless guaranteed absolute physical safety without unpleasant side effects.

Nothing is more central to the discussion of the future as our willingness to fundamentally change ourselves. Visionaries of the hypertechnological age we’re in today like to point to such things as life expectancy as an argument for the heightened interest in in artificial intelligence and genetic modification. But if the last thirty years have taught us anything, it is that the introduction of antibiotics, pesticides, better nutrition, and smart technology all replace our desire to fundamentally alter ourselves.

These factors are what shape our biological world. We won’t need implants or gene selection, because our biology has already been altered. The question to be answered today is how we can shape this revolution to reflect our current needs, not how we can redesign ourselves for this revolution to take place.

With the astounding pace of genomic discovery, the DNA sciences are moving with rapid speed into the future. But, it is by no means an easy road ahead. Each day brings with it more headlines and more challenging societal issues. But at this juncture—where for the first time people have truly been given the opportunity to play God—the wisdom is in the recognition that fundamentally we want to stay the same. The science fiction scenario involving the creation of a dramatically different and improved human race is extremely unlikely. The burden lies with the individual who does not want change—especially the kind of change that comes from the inner workings of our brains and bodies.

As a society, we have not outgrown our conservative natures, and the current hype of risks—both by the media, and within the scientific community itself—is simply a realm that many of us are not willing to expose ourselves to. Once we can transcend this fear, science too will turn a corner. Until then, the benefits of DNA science will arrive slowly and stepwise, as we become increasingly more fluent in its particular language.

 

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