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We Can Now Repair the Human Genome

A breakthrough toward curing AIDS, depression…and augmenting normal humans?

HIV invades the genome of people infected with the disease. Those strands of DNA are what causes the virus to spread through the body. But now, the current issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences reports that a new technique removes those DNA strands. The article states that this technique “may provide a viable path toward a permanent cure for AIDS and a means to vaccinate against other pathogenic viruses.”

And methodologies for identifying such genetic cures are improving rapidly. For example, Nature recently reported a new technique for repairing a defective genome, gene by gene. Such precision is critical in that mutations of even single genes can cause great damage. The lead researcher, Dr. Bruce Conklin, said, “We are hopeful that our technique, by treating the human genome like lines of computer code, could one day be used to reverse harmful mutations and essentially repair the damaged code.”

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Where gene therapy will likely go.

Most people applaud the development of gene therapies to cure disease. The hope is that in our lifetime, cancer, heart attack, and diabetes will be curable before they devastate our bodies.

But if gene-by-gene editing of the human genome is possible, how long can it be before researchers use it to try to ameliorate people’s more gray-area characteristics, for example, the proclivity to sadness or to losing one’s temper? And from there, can it be long until researchers are tempted to try to enhance not-deficient intelligence, personality, and looks?

Many people’s visceral reaction to that is “Ewww.” But that also has been the reaction to many previous advances that we today view as noncontroversial. Examples:

  • When birth control was invented, many viewed it as tampering with God’s will. (Alas, some still do!)
  • When in-vitro fertilization became available to help infertile couples, some viewed it as opening Pandora’s Box.
  • When the camera was invented, some were concerned it would be the end of privacy. PBS’s The American Experience,” said,

One resort posted a notice: "PEOPLE ARE FORBIDDEN TO USE THEIR KODAKS ON THE BEACH." Other locations were no safer. For a time, Kodak cameras were banned from the Washington Monument. The Hartford Courant sounded the alarm as well, declaring that "the sedate citizen can't indulge in any hilariousness without the risk of being caught in the act and having his photograph passed around among his Sunday School children.”

Yet today we accept all those innovations as de rigueur.

Will it be the same with genetic enhancement? If you were contemplating having a child, mightn’t you want the option—emphasis on the word “option”—to ensure your child had above-average intelligence, looks, and a likeable personality? Even if you didn’t want to exercise that option, would you insist that no one have that option?

The risks

But what about the downsides?:

  • Could government, like Nazi Germany did, coercively use genetics to try to create a master race, and to keep up, other governments would follow suit? Yes, it’s a danger that should be evaluated to see if the risk could be sufficiently mitigated.
  • If genetic enhancement were available, would it not exacerbate the gap between society’s haves and have-nots? That seems to have a solution solid enough to allow the research. The poor in most developed countries receive free health care (including under ObamaCare,) with extensive outreach made to get the message out to low-income communities. Genetic enhancement would simply be an additional covered medical procedure. And with the enormous benefit that genetic enhancement could provide, word would spread pervasively in the media and by word-of mouth so that most people would be aware of it, a likely even higher percentage of low-income people that are aware that free flu shots are available to the indigent.
  • What about the procedures’ dangers? Could tampering with the genome cause more problems that it solves, even create a monster? That’s possible but the purpose of research is to test safety and efficacy: For even a modest drug, the FDA requires a decade of research and literally truckloads of data---first on computer models, then with animals, then volunteer human trials—before physicians can offer it to patients. The FDA would doubtless require much more even than that. If we, without due consideration, stop genetic research even before it starts, there would be no gene therapies. Already, gene therapies are in late-stage development for a form of melanoma, blindness, and pancreatic disease.

A call for reflection not reflex

Scientists and investors are champing at the bit to proceed with such research but the FDA imposes strong, complex restrictions even on disease-curing gene therapy. Is it not time to have a full-dimensioned public conversation about gene therapy including for enhancement, resisting the temptation to dismiss it with a reflexive, “Ewww!?”

Marty Nemko's bio is in Wikipedia.

Marty Nemko is a career and personal coach based in Oakland, Ca. and the author of 7 books. 

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