With Gene Therapy We Could Direct Our Own Evolution

By Juan Enriquez and Steve Gullans | March 9, 2015 9:00 am


Human genetic engineering is not new; it has been going on for a long, long time — naturally. Ancient viruses are really good at inserting themselves and modifying human gene code. Over millennia, constant infections would come to mean that 8 percent of the entire human genome is made up of inserted virus code. All this gene recoding of our bodies occurred under Darwin’s rules, natural selection and random mutation. But nonrandom, deliberate human genetic engineering is new, and it is a big deal.

As of 1990, increasingly genetically modified humans walk among us. More and more gene therapies carry new instructions into our bodies and place them in the right spots; in so doing, they modify our most fundamental selves, our core, heretofore slow-evolving DNA. We are still in the very early stages of effectively hijacking viruses for human-driven purposes; just a few years ago it took a long time to identify and isolate a single faulty gene and figure out what was wrong, never mind finding a way to replace it with a properly functioning alternative. Early gene therapy focused on obscure, deadly orphan diseases like ADA-SCID (the immune disease that “Bubble Boy” had), adrenoleukodystrophy (say that five times fast), Wiskott-Aldrich syndrome, various leukemias, and hemophilia.

In theory the technique is relatively simple: Take a neutered virus, one that is engineered to not harm you but that readily infects human cells to ferry in new DNA instructions, write a new set of genetic instructions into the virus, and let it loose to infect a patient’s cells. And ta‑da! You have a genetically modified human. (Think of this as deliberately sneezing on someone but instead of giving them a cold, you give them a benign infection that enters their body, recodes their cells, and fixes a faulty gene.)

Trojan Horses

In practice, it has taken decades for gene therapy to reach patients, particularly after one safety trial went terribly wrong and killed Jesse Gelsinger in 1999. (Ironically, it was not anything the foreign gene did directly that was the culprit; it was a massive overreaction by Gelsinger’s own healthy immune system that overwhelmed his body.) Gene-therapy trials were temporarily halted and regulatory approvals slowed way down. Safety increased, but costs ballooned.

So even today if you are sick and in need of immediate gene therapy, the overall approval process still feels ultra-slow and bureaucratic. But compared to a traditional Darwinian evolution time frame, things are moving at lightning speed. Every day we know more about how to alter the human gene code, and we are beginning to insert multiple genes into plants and animals to cure ever more complex diseases. Multi-gene disease cures in humans are likely a decade or more away, as we still have more to learn about safety and unintended consequences one step at a time.

Humans can now tame and redeploy infectious disease scourges as safe Trojan horses to carry and insert life-saving genes. By the end of 2013, more than 1,996 human gene-therapy clinical trials were completed or under way; 64 percent focused on cancers, 9 percent on diseases involving single rare mutations, and 8 percent on infectious disease. In 2014 you could go to a pharmacy in the EU and buy the first clinically approved gene-therapy product, Glybera, for treatment of lipoprotein lipase deficiency, which causes pancreatitis.

dna-drawnViral Variety

Today more than 80 percent of gene-therapy trials use a tamed virus, and half of these rely on two standard workhorses, adenoviruses and retroviruses, to deliver and deploy new gene code into humans. But there are many, many ways to insert new genetic instructions into everything from bacteria to Tea Party pundits, including using devices such as “gene guns” (an NRA-approved device?) or electroporation (electrically shocking cells to open pores and let DNA in), as well as naked DNA, sleeping-beauty transposons (promiscuous DNA that inserts itself into genomes), stem-cell transplants, or within neutered viruses, including herpes, lentivirus, measles, polio, Listeria, Salmonella, shigella, vaccinia, and cholerae.

Soon gene therapy techniques will go way beyond small patient populations. There are hints of what is coming. Two separate trials showed you can alter almost every blood-related stem cell in your body. And by altering your blood stem cells, which differentiate into many cell types in your body, you can effect some pretty fundamental changes in nearly any organ in the body.

Human Enhancements

As human gene therapies get safer, they will begin to migrate from the “must fix” diseases toward the “nice to fix” diseases. Moorfields Eye Hospital in London is ground zero for this transition; in 2009, they treated a healthy twenty-three-year-old suffering from non-life-threatening inherited blindness. By 2014 a further nine patients, suffering choroideremia, had been genetically modified and their sight improved markedly. And while the Europeans were working to restore human vision, the white coats at Washington University “cured” color blindness in monkeys, and proved that the monkeys’ brains adapt, even as adults, to the new visual-color stimuli.

Bring these two vision-restoring experiments together in your mind, and you can imagine that all kinds of strange things will become possible. Superhuman eyesight could someday transition from comic books to everyday life. One might insert specific genes into normal humans to allow them to see in other colors, say ultraviolet, as do insects, fish, reptiles, and reindeer. We know this is humanly possible because some folks, perhaps even Monet during his water-lily period, can see UV light due to surgery to remove the lens to treat cataracts. And there are women who already carry an extra mutated red-light photoreceptor, allowing them to see in four colors when most of us see in three.

Because viral gene therapies have been primarily focused on obscure human diseases, few people understand just what a broad influence these techniques could eventually have on our species. We will see more and more genetically modified humans; it will just seem common and normal, just as IVF babies are today. (Just think: Baby Louise, the first screaming-tabloid test-tube baby, is now thirty-seven years old, and her IVF sister Natalie just gave birth to her normally conceived daughter.) But before we start to take these technologies for granted, we may want to reflect on our newfound powers. Soon gene therapies will likely be used for cosmetics, athletics, and longevity. We will begin to shape our own evolution by introducing “desirable traits” and editing out “negative traits” in ourselves and our kids. An easy decision when you are a parent facing a gene that will kill your child; much more interesting, complex, and nuanced when applied to how a human looks, grows, or thinks. And we best set some ground rules as we let these new technologies loose on the world.


EvolvingOurselves_300dpi2Reprinted from Evolving Ourselves by Juan Enriquez and Steve Gullans with permission of Current / Penguin, a member of Penguin Group (USA) LLC, A Penguin Random House Company. Copyright (c) Juan Enriquez and Steven Gullans, 2015.


Top image: Hand by Ariros / Shutterstock; phages by GrAl / Shutterstock

Side image by Roomline / Shutterstock

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Health & Medicine, Top Posts
MORE ABOUT: biotechnology, genetics
  • http://www.mazepath.com/uncleal/qz4.htm Uncle Al

    set some ground rules” Put management in charge of evolution! Yeah, that’s a winning strategy. REMFs have never known anything pertinent to grunts, re six years and $7 trillion of Obamunism creating a workers’ paradise.

    ($7 trillion)/(300 million) = $23,000/person. If every family of four were given $93,000 off their continuing Federal income tax at the onset, would they be better off than they are now?

    • ThePhilistine

      DERP. Nice post, dumbasss

    • Mike Richardson

      “Obamunism.” Clever. But exactly how does this rant relate to the topic of human genetic engineering? I’ll admit my thinking can get tangential at times, but man, that’s out of the park.

      • Verum

        Nonsense. He even quoted the part he was referring to – the author’s terrible suggestion that some politicians or bureaucrats, even ones with science backgrounds, should be the ones who direct our future evolution.

        • Mike Richardson

          Wait, you understand what he said? You need to stick around. A lot of times, we need an interpreter. I’ve got some crazy Republican uncles, but even they generally make more sense than Uncle Al.

    • macrojd

      Uncle Al, did you forget to take your pills again?

    • Come on think!

      LOL! Ask any Republican what kind of medical care they think the state should provide and you get 75% -85% of Obamacare. Yet they revile it. Buncha retrogrades I think.

  • lump1

    As long as these enhancements are not in the germline itself, I worry that they will only add to our social inequality. Basically, if you want your new baby to keep up with the elites, you have to load it up with 35 fancy enhancements, and when she has her own children, they will benefit from none of them, so you need to buy and install them all again.

    Gene therapy will teach us which genetic enhancements are effective and safe, but for reasons of social justice, I want these interventions to enter the germline, so they become “free” for the later generations. I think also that for the sake of greater equality of opportunity, the state should cover the cost of germline genetic enhancement for poor families. Of course, it will be decades before we learn how to safely do it, but it has the potential to become a sorely needed tool for achieving equality of opportunity in this world.

    • facefault

      But if they are in the germline, that gives the children of rich parents an advantage beyond their wealth. It could further ossify class boundaries, rather than dissolving them.

      • SixSixSix

        Actually, it could cause genuine specization. Inter-species marriage bans would have real teeth (all those could be modified too).

      • lump1

        I was picturing that if this is subsidized for low-income parents, they will gain truly valuable assets that stay in their family for generations – even if those assets aren’t in the form of estates. And if we succeed in treating certain physical and mental disorders in the germline, the beneficiaries will certainly have easier access to wealth.

        In short, what I’m advocating is altruistic augmentation, to give a helping hand to families who most need a helping hand.

    • Michael Joseph

      We can not even feed the poor . . .

  • Mike Richardson

    Well, for some of the worst hereditary diseases, such as Tay-Sachs, cystic fibrosis, and others, I can see where germline engineering might be desirable to eliminate a scourge from your bloodline once and for all. But for more elective enhancements, there’s definitely the possibility of Gattacca-style social stratification and widening the gulf between haves and have-nots. I’m wondering, though, if perhaps more far-sighted insurance companies or other corporate interests might see it in their best interests to make this kind of treatment more widely available, as a means of increasing productivity and reducing the costs of long-term health care. Regardless of how it comes about, though, I’d much rather see any such treatments made available to all, rather than just an elite few. We’ve got enough inequality as it is without exacerbating it through genetic engineering.

    • jeff swanson

      The technology will be pennies in 10 years if govt stays out of the way. Whether someone elects to use this tech will be inexpensive and voluntary.

  • SixSixSix

    I believe we finally have a way to stamp out the terrible mental disease with inherited components that bias its victims towards Tea Party membership, or biases in general. Of course Tea Party members will be excited about curing all genetic defects which keep the skin from being lily white or eyes from being round.

    • Septimius

      Is this what passes for maturity and intellect on the Left the days. Pathetic. Perhaps we can remove the genetic flaw that makes leftists incapable of recognizing the horrific failures of their retrograde ideology.

      • Mike Richardson

        Each side’s got it’s extremists, but fortunately, that’s learned, and not genetic behavior. An example would be overgeneralizing about everyone on one side of the political spectrum or other.

      • SixSixSix

        Q.E.D. Sarcasm should at least make an attempt at being humorous, or it is just whining.

  • Danakil Horst

    Can we use it to eliminate Narcissistic Sociopathy?

  • http://www.thegodreality.com/ johnheno

    Another name for this science is Intelligent Design

    • Wilson Wong

      That term is a real pain in the butt for atheists.

    • testk1ng

      Design by intelligent humans using science facts

      • http://www.thegodreality.com/ johnheno

        It certainly works better than natural selection, Which has no overall perspective and no predictive power. And thus wouldn’t have the foggiest notion of where anything and everything is evolving to, or even why. Bees evolving eyes, ears, sent detectors and lungs to pick up light, sound, smells and oxygen without the foggiest notion that light waves, sounds waves, oxygen and flowers actually existed. Thus achieving “vastly improbable” feats that has all the qualities of magic.and miracles.

        • Nathaniel Samuels

          Hence why we can do in decades what it took natural selection bilions of years to achive

  • Wilson Wong

    We could direct but we can not create. We only manipulate and modify what’s already there for us. If you think DNA can evolve from non-living matters all by itself then it’s as ridiculous as saying programing language wasn’t made by human but some random chances.

    Go ahead and say there’s no room for religion in science. Believers aren’t the only ones who have faith in an unknown entity, even scientists can never witness how life began on earth but they BELIEVE their hypotheses are acceptable and developed their own “godless” theories based on some experiments where in actuality these experiments may not directly prove that life can exist by itself.

    Another example, physicists speculated that our universe can come into being from nothing based on their observations on virtual particles that can pop in and out of existence. In fact, their speculation has no firm evidence to directly prove what happened before the Big Bang. They speculate because they BELIEVE something could be true. What’s left for us is just a belief in the name of science. It’s no different than religion.

    At the end of the day, everybody needs a little bit of faith in everything.

    • Humfree1859@yahoo.com

      Wong, you is wong! Love it!
      Need for faith? Not really, conclusions impinging on life decisions must be based ultimately on empirically derived data. Rules of the road! Tranhumanism is almost here. The human race is just a hair away from being able to do away with dreadful illnesses, teeth problems, aging disabilities, etc. What species we will term ourselves a millenia hence is up to our imaginations today. The main hinderance to future well-being is the portion of the populations of the Earth who reject human survival for the certainty of faith based religions.

    • Michael Joseph

      Faith is blind obedience, too irrational thoughts . . .

  • JJ

    Really? Gene therapies help other illnesses? It’s hard to imagine that they can do things like that, the body and brain and the human mind are all so complex to figure out. But Genes, are much more complicated, there like this completely different language that have been placed into this complicated structure.

  • Seeknoevil

    While I support research on the Creation side of things, the title represent’s Hitler’s strategy; Identify, record, tag, segregate & annihilate ones who are perceived to be a threat. All it takes is one crazy-a$$ dude with a world of warcraft mentality.

  • Gustavo Souza

    To hell with narrow-minded losers. Use genetic engineering to cure keratoconus. It

    • dugmet

      Ive been living with KC for 30 years. I have three college degrees and it has not ruined my life.

      • Gustavo Souza

        It’s not a binary thing. There are levels. I can honestly say keratoconus ruined a lot of my life.


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