Science is turning a pivotal corner. Recent experiments in human genetic engineering offer the promise of halting chronic disease and extending life.
While these developments have raised concerns about a possible quest to build a perfect human, advocates of the “DNA Revolution” argue that with proper restraint and constant review, the types of medical advancements gained with genetic engineering are too beneficial to ignore.
The August publication of Nature unveiled a breakthrough in U.S. scientific research. By combining new technology called CRISPR-Cas9 with a natural system known as a gene drive, scientists repaired a germline mutation in human embryos created through in vitro fertilization (IVF).
The genetic fix could help prevent hypertrophic myocardiopathy, a disease that eventually leads to heart failure. However, what is more intriguing is the experiment laid bare a possible path to preventing the inheritance of gene-based diseases across generations, as GEN detailed.
The CRISPR-myocardiopathy finding is not the first development to make a case for genetically nipping a budding disease before it starts. In China, fertility doctors already use preimplantation genetic diagnosis, an IVF procedure that helps couples avoid passing on genetic mutations that could cause disease or disability in their children, Nature reported.
Additionally, a new cancer therapy called CAR-T genetically engineers human immune cells to act as cancer fighters, Scientific American explained.
A Chance to Halt Disease and Extend Life
These and other recent studies move science closer than ever to treating and eliminating chronic diseases, as well as offering other quality-of-life advancements.
While CRISPR aims to eradicate diseases, other scientific efforts are first searching for the perfect treatment for scores of medical conditions that have genetic components. Congenital blindness, sickle cell disease, cystic fibrosis and lung cancer are just a few of the targets of researchers who see potential in genetic modifications or gene therapies.
Genetic engineering also opens the doors of understanding in the larger study of genetics. Advanced knowledge of the human genome helps the pharmaceutical industry, for example, develop more effective medicines to fight health conditions.
Of course, a body without a disease is a body that has a chance to thrive longer. But scientists also hope to crack the complex genomic code that underlies longevity itself by studying how certain variants in the genome can influence life span. They may have found something in a study last year of lab animals. The genetic reprogramming of mice rejuvenated their organs and increased their life spans by 30 percent, according to the New York Times.
Genetic engineering has also raised the possibility of improving human intelligence. At this point, it’s nearly impossible to discern what result any specific genetic modification would have on the brain. But Nautilus had a little fun with the possibility of a perfected engineering technique, theorizing that the addition of just 100 positive genetic variants could increase IQ by 15 points.
Use for Good
Enthusiasm and dissent best summarize the reactions to news of the CRISPR research and other human genetic engineering developments. Entertaining suggestions about off-the-charts IQ scores will not derail studies and experiments, but strong ethical backlash certainly could.
Many of the involved researchers and scientists on the periphery recognize the harm from DNA changes that extend beyond societal expectations and ethics, and thus advocate an open discussion on the ideal uses and limitations of human genetic engineering.
CRISPR pioneer Jennifer Doudna has, for one, demanded a broader public discussion of the potential benefits and dangers of gene-editing technology, GEN reported. And, in a U.S. News World & Report op-ed, two George Mason University researchers contend that discouraging CRISPR and other technologies will push scientists to less careful uses of genetic engineering.
“Instead of painting a terrifying picture of the future that only Aldous Huxley could dream up — and using these fears to completely abandon new types of innovation,” the researchers wrote, “scientists, policymakers and educators ought to seek out ethical ways to allow genetic science to improve people’s lives.”
The debate over human genetic engineering will surely intensify, giving human scientists a big spotlight to make their case for ending chronic disease.