May 16 2019

Gene Editing: Will It Make Rich People Genetically Superior?

At a time when new technology such as gene editing offers unprecedented control over our own biology, the latest wave…

At a time when new technology such as gene editing offers unprecedented control over our own biology, the latest wave of medical advances, including powerful DNA-editing technology like CRISPR/Cas9, is a source of excitement and optimism.

CRISPR works like a genetic scalpel to cut a patient’s DNA, targeting and repairing genes at risk of disease.

This method of gene editing may one day make certain diseases – including Alzheimer’s, sickle cell disease, and some forms of cancer – a thing of the past.

While traditional treatments for chronic illnesses generally address the symptoms, this offers the potential of a permanent cure by attacking the disease at the source. Once genetic mutations are removed from a patient’s cells, the cells can resume normal function for the rest of the patient’s life.

What are the ethical concerns surrounding gene editing?

Gene editing technologies are not without controversy – from ethics to whether it will become a plaything of the super-rich.

One main issue of CRISPR lies in its simplicity, which means it is easier for unauthorized persons to experiment with the technology.

Already, CRISPR has become a favorite of amateur ‘biohackers,’ with one man injecting himself with a homemade cocktail in a misguided attempt to boost his biceps.

Another tried (and failed) to cure himself of AIDS.

And in late 2018, headlines blared that an ambitious researcher conducted secret gene editing trials in China, making mutations in human embryos to protect against HIV and then apparently turning those embryos into twin babies.

Researchers were aghast at the shoddy science and the premature use of CRISPR in human patients.

While scientists, ethicists, and regulators have called for a ban on gene editing research in human embryos until the risks are better understood, it may be impossible to prevent willing patients and unscrupulous researchers from experimenting with gene editing in humans.

Especially because when cutting-edge therapies do receive official regulatory approval, they often carry eye-popping price tags.

How much will gene editing cost?

Spark Therapeutics plans to charge US patients $850,000 for a gene therapy that treats a rare form of genetic blindness in children.

By some estimates, that’s a bargain: analysts expected a list price as high as $1 million per patient, or a half million dollars per eyeball.

There’s little reason to expect that the next approved genetic therapy will be much cheaper.

In a time when new technology offers unprecedented control over our own biology while global one per cent-ers seem to be the only ones who can afford access, is humanity at a crossroads?

Are we headed for a future where those with the means will be able to purchase genetic superiority, leaving the rest of us behind?

What are the challenges?

While some diseases are caused by a single DNA mutation and are thus good candidates for gene editing therapies, traits such as intelligence, height, strength, and longevity are associated with hundreds of genetic factors, and the influence of any one genetic difference is poorly understood.

But what if, instead of editing one’s existing genome, you chemically synthesized one from scratch?

DNA synthesis is the process of chemically stitching together DNA components in the lab, much like assembling letters in a printing press.

As synthesis technology has increased, so have the ambitions of genome synthesis projects like the Genome Project-Write.

Although the leaders have sworn off the creation of synthetic human cells, by rewriting certain sequences of DNA, they hope to make cells resistant to certain viruses.

In principle, one could use genome synthesis technology to create replicas of Albert Einstein’s cells.

What impact could gene editing have on your health?

Significant health risks are likely to accompany any attempt at gene editing, even using improved tools of the future.

That’s because CRISPR is prone to making unwanted and unpredictable changes to the genome.

For therapy performed in an embryo, these unwanted changes would be copied in every cell of the developing baby, including cells destined to become sperm or eggs.

This is of great concern to bioethicists, who warn that genetic typos could permanently enter the gene pool.

Is it likely that the rich will become genetically superior?

While the future of healthcare may unfold in unexpected and unpredictable ways, one thing is likely to remain the same: not even riches will allow you to exceed the constraints of your genetic blueprints. (Read More)