Dangers of the Coming Age of Gene Therapy
While designer babies of the Gattaca universe raise all sorts of complicated ethical, moral, and medical issues, they are still quite a ways off. Far more realistic – and more scary – is the growing research behind the plausibility of emerging gene therapy procedures. The basic concept entails the use of biological delivery mechanisms, such as viruses, that can be programmed to target specific types of cells, in order to rewrite their genetic information and change gene expression. Mapping and altering the future genetic expression of embryos is likely to be an expensive and difficult process, making the hijacking of existing viruses seem comparatively easy. And in fact, researchers all over the world are successfully altering the genetic blueprints of a variety of species, allowing them to fight disease, increase strength, and even age more slowly. In 2012, a team of researchers from the Spanish National Cancer Research center reported that they were able to extend the lives of mice by 24% by using gene therapy that increased natural levels of telomerase (read the full article here). More recently, methods pioneered by Dr. Nicholas Marazakies from the Imperial College of London were used to help human patients suffering from Parkinson’s disease, who were administered gene therapies that boosted levels of dopamine. Patients then remarkably performed an average of 30% better on controlled movement tests.
With massive funding and research being poured into gene therapy, along with great strides being made in their efficacy, the questions of both the dangers and morality of such procedures are particularly pertinent. As Dr. Lander from the Whitehead Institute at MIT cautions in Cracking the Code of Life, “It’s a very complex machine, and going in with a monkey wrench to change a piece, odds are most changes we make today would break the machine.” The gene sequences that allow human beings to function have essentially been altered and fine-tuned for billions of years, and any changes are very likely to have unintended and potentially life-threatening consequences. Furthermore, better tools and cheaper methods for altering gene sequences may give rise to an entirely new class of biological weapon. Imagine if scientists could develop an easily transferrable virus that induced cells to begin producing botulin, or any other notoriously deadly poison. That’s quite a scary thought. Even the rise of 3-D printing could come into play, allowing anyone to download the instructions to print injections that insert unregulated sequences into their genetic material, naturally occurring or otherwise.
Once created, the relative ease with with these treatments could be distributed and administered is frightening – the experience may even be the same as going to your local pharmacy to receive a flu-shot. With everyone clamoring to purchase cures for a whole host of genetic (and other) diseases, the population would slowly begin to converge at a single genetic point, something that is much more dangerous than it might seem on the surface. It is vitally important to remember that there is almost always a reason for the existence of an expressed gene in the genome – if there weren’t it wouldn’t have stayed around for billions of years, evolution would almost certainly have gotten rid of it. A famous example can be seen in Malaria resistance among many African peoples, who carry the gene for (but are not plagued by) sickle cell anemia. Many studies have alluded to the fact that Jewish people with Ashkenazi descent have IQs up to a full standard deviation higher than the national average. Many researchers believe that the same mutations that cause this increased intelligence also result in a notably higher rate of cognitive genetic diseases like Tay-Sachs (Read more here). But with such reduced variation among genetic code, we may begin to lose many of the benefits that we did not realize we had until they disappear. Furthermore, the human population would become much more susceptible to a colossal biological epidemic – decreased genetic variation means putting all of our eggs in one basket.
While gene therapy certainly provides hope and answers for many genetic tragedies that plague the population, it is important to remember that the genome that we have today was masterfully crafted and tweaked by evolution over billions of years. As we begin to interfere with that process, we must be especially weary of the unintended consequences it is likely to bring about.
– Zach S.