In this blog article I wanted to be intentionally imaginative about the good and bad possibilities of genome editing and add my voice to the chorus of those calling for strong ethical oversight of the field.
First, let us talk about the wild possibilities of human genome editing. In past we have always held that the character, spirit, ecumenical or altruistic core of humanity is a constant that pervades all human societies on this planet. In simpler terms, people have both good and bad qualities everywhere you go. To be human is often seen as an immaluable state to which we can only make minor behavior related changes. Unequivocally, humans are biochemical creatures. Everything we do, ask, feel, see, touch, and spiritualize is a biochemical computational process that involves various parts of our bodies working together. Human genetics and molecular biology teach us that everything we are from the single cell state to the adult state is an interactive biochemical protocol that changes based on two fundamentals: our genetic makeup, and our environment. In the past, we could only change our environment, now we can change both.
What I am trying to stress here is that the very genes that make us “human” can now be changed. Anyone with enough understanding could take today’s genetic editing technology and add to or remove the components of humanity from the individual. If left unchecked, scientists could rewrite genomes whether by accident or intentionally to remove altruistic instinct or the desire to do good. It would be possible to rewrite genomes to make new human hybrids and subspecies. The possibilities for new forms of intolerance and discrimination of human hybrids alone are virtually limitless, creating a new forms of evil. Ultimately, how we safeguard the future of “humanness” is never so important as it is right this very second. What kinds of genetic modifications should we allow and what kinds should we utterly reject? And should we allow any modifications at all?
Now that I’ve painted the picture of a human genetic editing catastrophe, let us reflect on what we stand to gain from genetic modifications. As we’ve studied the molecular world around us over the last 40 years, we have found incredible wonders. For example, immortal jellyfish are organisms that are thought to be capable of living indefinitely, if not eaten by a predator or damaged by natural forces. Immortal jellyfish are capable of renewing their own life cycle. When adult immortal jellyfish reach old age they enter a rebirth stage that converts the adult body into a less developed “younger” life stage. I envision the possibility of taking lessons from these jellyfish and apply them to our aging process to extend and improve the quality of human life with advancing age. In another amazing example, the naked mole rat was discovered last century to be naturally devoid of and highly resistant to all forms of cancer. The genetic basis of cancer resistance in these animals, which has been elucidated, is likely an adaptation to a harsh and toxic underground environment. These genetic systems could conceivably be added to our genome to make humans functionally immune to cancers of all forms.
In North America today we live surrounded by vast quantities of easy to access unhealthy foods. Someone once told me that to live a healthy food lifestyle in today’s society would be an unnatural response to an unnatural environment. Simply put, we eat the unhealthy food that is put in front of us. Today’s obesity epidemic is a multifactorial problem that involves 1) advertising, 2) easy to access inexpensive, low nutrition foods, 3) human genetic predisposition to genetic, 4) gut microbial ecology, etc. Now, the tools we are gaining in genetic editing give us the potential to graft the lean individual’s genetic predispositions onto the obese individual. At the same time we are learning that the obese individual’s gut microbial ecology can strongly impact overall health. With more study we will determine which gut bacteria combinations promote a lean human physiology.
Ultimately humans are designed to be on the move to find food. We have over the past ten thousand years developed agriculture and food distribution systems that largely negate this movement need, resulting in widespread sedentary lifestyles. I hypothesize that there are gene combinations that could be used to keep humans physically fit without needing to exercise. There are already some individuals that with myostatin related muscle hypertrophy that naturally produce more muscle mass. Genes treatments of fitness and muscle tone would make an impact on obesity but would probably make a level playing field impossible to maintain for athletic competitions. One might argue that a level athletic playing field is mostly nonsense anyway.
Metabolism and our response to our environment is a great area for genetic diversification. For example, several thousand years ago in Northern Europe, those that were able to drink cow’s milk in adulthood survived food shortages and passed on their lactose metabolizing genes. Today, modification of our metabolism gene systems could make us better adapted to the foods that are currently available and the lifestyles we currently live with the potential to greatly improve overall health.
So what should we be able to do with gene editing? It is already illegal in most places to change the genes of the embryo. In the adult, we are limited by the delivery mechanism itself and the impact of the desired genes in the individual’s development. Disease resistance and fitness enhancement seem harmless enough, but changes that impact cognitive development are much more ethically challenging. It may be possible to take Albert Einstein’s sequenced genome and figure out exactly what made his brain work so well, but it is another thing entirely to apply these genes on a societal scale. Cognitive enhancement probably needs to be applied to the embryo to see maximum benefit (which is still illegal). In another example, there are some individuals that function perfectly on just 4 hours of sleep per night. Genomic experiments one family of these “short-sleepers” showed that a mutation in the DEC2 gene was responsible. Again, this type of gene might need to be applied early in development to see a benefit.
We have seen examples of slow progression of neurological disease manifesting highly intelligent individuals. The prototype of this is Stephen Hawking’s ALS disease. Normal life expectancy in ALS is about 2 to 5 years but Stephen Hawking has had this disease for most of his life. Some speculate that his extreme intelligence somehow counteracts the disease progression. In a similar example, it has been documented that highly intelligent people who contract Alzheimer’s disease have considerably more damage at the tissue level than normal people. It is thought that these people manifest the disease faster because their brains are able to counteract the damage caused until it reaches a certain point.
Human genetic editing technology is every bit as powerful as nuclear technology. Uranium is very difficult and expensive to refine which limits its use, but the knowledge and tools of genetic editing technology are available anywhere at modest cost. We can’t get rid of this technology nor should we try. For example, I believe the key to eradicating all cancer forms is a transplant of universal resistance genes. We just need to have a better delivery mechanism in place for mass application (yes, we are working on exactly this point by developing synthetic virology). We need to respect this technology and create regulation regarding its use.