Bad Genes? Hack Them With Virus Therapy

Close-up of an orchid flower

courtesy flickr/macrophile

Let’s admit one thing up front: genetic mutations are a good thing!  They’re evolution’s way of experimenting, so we should thank them for bringing forth lobster claws, orchid petals, and human brains.  In fact, without mutations, life on earth would have died out as soon as the environment changed in any way.

But from a human perspective, genetic mutations can also be cruel.  One is responsible for color blindness, and another forces celiacs to be gluten-free all their life.  Other disorders are even more severe, ranging from cystic fibrosis to muscular dystrophy to Down’s syndrome.

In short, every person in history has had to play the genetic hand they were dealt at conception, for better or worse.  It’s the price we pay for a system that’s capable of generating human-level complexity.

This is about to change.

Over the last few decades, humanity’s made great strides in the field of gene therapy – modifying the genes in an organism (like you) for a beneficial result (say, cancer resistance).  One of the most promising areas of research involves using a harmless virus to deliver useful genes. Because viruses replicate by inserting their genetic material into cell nuclei, they’re like an all-natural, made-to-order DNA delivery vehicle.  Here are a few ways gene therapy could change your life, in the surprisingly near future.

Illustration of virus delivering genes to a cell

courtesy National Institute of Health

Medical Applications

Restore Vision. Neurology researchers at the University of Pennsylvania have used gene therapy to treat 12 people with congenital blindness.  This particular blindness was caused by a mutation in a gene called RPE65, which interferes with retinal cells’ ability to detect light.  A virus, carrying the normal form of the gene, was inserted into the patients’ eyes.  Result?  Half the group improved so much they were no longer considered legally blind.  Click here for the Scientific American write-up.

Quit Smoking.   Apparently, there exists an antibody to nicotine molecules, which blocks all its effects (including the physical part of addiction).  Even better, the antibody is a protein that can be manufactured by your own cells – if they have the right gene to code for it.  So you could potentially use gene therapy to stop smoking, or even to prevent yourself from ever starting.  Click here for the Science journal abstract, or click here for the layman’s version.

Stop Infections.  No need to restrict gene therapy to the patient’s cells.  Some clever scientists are learning to apply “therapy” to pathogenic bacteria.  Instead of delivering helpful genes, they’re delivering genes that shut down the bacteria’s virulence / infection pathways, thereby stopping it from spreading.  Genetic solutions are especially important here, since they’re an alternative to the usual antibiotic treatment.  (Antibiotics may help the patient, but they also breed antibiotic-resistant bacteria, which just pushes the problem off onto future generations).  The researchers are working with cholera, though the results are presumably relevant for a wide variety of different bacteria.  Click here for the European Commission’s article on the research.

silhouettes of human evolution


These are just 3 of the many ways that gene therapy could revolutionize the field of medicine, and there are many, many more.  Of course, there are some barriers.  As usual, the biggest concern is whether such treatments will ever be commonly accessible (in other words, can the people who need it, afford it?).  But if we assume that future genetic treatments will benefit from economies of scale, then the implications are staggering.

One day, it might be commonplace to genetically “fix” your offspring before they’re even born.  Say you get pregnant, and your doctor offers a full report on your fetus’ genome, detailing all hereditary conditions and genetic risks.  Imagine using that information to create a customized cocktail of important genes, and then delivering it directly to the fetal cells.  Presto – your kid will be free of any and all inherited diseases and disorders, for his entire life.

Some people will surely have moral objections to this, perhaps because it’s perceived as human interference in nature’s (or God’s) plans.  But that’s nothing compared to the ethical quandaries of enhancing your offspring in vitro.  Think of it this way: if you can provide your child with normal, healthy genes, why not go a step further and give them the very best genes available?  As much as 40% of their intelligence might be genetically determined.  And some gene therapy experiments have doubled rats’ muscular strength and speed.  So who’s to say the wealthiest among us won’t be creating super-kids, genetically superior to the rest of the population?

Actually, if this technology really does end up being accessible to everyone, it’s possible that we’ll all have super-kids.  And that would trigger an enormous, fundamental shift in our concept of being human, perhaps in the space of a single generation.

I’m about out of time, so I’ll explore some of the deeper issues in a future post about genetic engineering.  For now, what do you think about this development?  Would you genetically improve your kids, if you had the opportunity?  Or yourself, for that matter?  Speak your mind in the box below.

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