Genetics – where are we heading?

By October 28, 2018genetics

Recent leaps in the biosciences, combined with big data analysis, have led us to the cusp of a revolution in medicine. For the first time, humans can intervene in changing the genetics code — and the disease genes embedded in it — that took biological evolution 3.5 to 4 billion years to produce.

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Not only have we learned to read and write the genetics code; now we can put it in digital form and translate it back into synthesized life. In theory, that gives our species control over biological design. We can write DNA software, boot it up to a computer converter and create unlimited variations of the gene sequences of biological life.

The most anxiously and immediately awaited outcome of this new capacity is its application for correcting genetic deficiencies that lead to a range of maladies, from cancer to diabetes to Alzheimer’s. Here, some humility must temper hope. What we know is surely considerable, but it is dwarfed by what we still have to learn.

We are still at the earliest stages of understanding the human genome, and most people get little value from genome snippet analysis. Those offering diet information are outside the realm of documented science. Cancer risk is currently one of the most useful areas of genome analysis, but we are at the very beginnings of being able to use only genome data for life predictions.

Predicting disease

Many believe that as we learn the cause of genetic defects, CRISPR or other editing tools could correct them. However, gene therapy has mostly failed so far — it has proven impossible to get the corrected gene into the right 100 trillion cells in the human body. Ex vivo gene therapy — where cells are treated outside of the body and then returned — has had some success. There have been some encouraging results with cancer treatments using immune cells that have been edited with CRISPR. I think we will see even more success in cancer treatments using ex vivo gene editing.

There are some who want to take genome editing much further by editing the germline genome so that it will forever change a given trait or disease. This is a complex area because there are clearly devastating diseases that we would like to eliminate from humans. But to do so, we need to do human experimentation without knowing the consequences. Also, the current editing tools are not as precise as indicated in the press and have many unintentional effects, where other genes are changed along with the intended one.