Carl Zimmer, the award-winning New York Times science writer, recently published a stellar book about human heredity called "She Has Her Mother's Laugh." Truly a magnum opus, the book delves into the cultural and scientific evolution of genetics, the field's outsize impact on society, and the new ways we might fundamentally alter our species and our planet.
"I was only prepared to write about how someday we would cross this line, and actually, we've already crossed it."
Zimmer spoke last week with editor-in-chief Kira Peikoff about the international race to edit the genes of human embryos, the biggest danger he sees for society (hint: it's not super geniuses created by CRISPR), and some outlandish possibilities for how we might reproduce in the future. This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
I was struck by the number of surprises you uncovered while researching human heredity, like how fetal cells can endure for a lifetime in a mother's body and brain. What was one of the biggest surprises for you?
Something that really jumped out for me was for the section on genetically modifying people. It does seem incredibly hypothetical. But then I started looking into mitochondrial replacement therapy, so-called "three parent babies." I was really surprised to discover that almost by accident, a number of genetically modified people were created this way [in the late 90s and early 2000s]. They walk among us, and they're actually fine as far as anyone can tell. I was only prepared to write about how someday we would cross this line, and actually, we've already crossed it.
And now we have the current arms race between the U.S. and China to edit diseases out of human embryos, with China being much more willing and the U.S. more reluctant. Do you think it's more important to get ahead or to proceed as ethically as possible?
I would prefer a middle road. I think that rushing into tinkering with the features of human heredity could be a disastrous mistake for a lot of reasons. On the other hand, if we completely retreat from it out of some vague fear, I think that we won't take advantage of the actual benefits that this technology might have that are totally ethically sound.
I think the United Kingdom is actually showing how you can go the middle route with mitochondrial replacement therapy. The United States has just said nope, you can't do it at all, and you have Congressmen talking about how it's just playing God or Frankenstein. And then there are countries like Mexico or the Ukraine where people are doing mitochondrial replacement therapy because there are no regulations at all. It's a wild west situation, and that's not a good idea either.
But in the UK, they said alright, well let's talk about this, let's have a debate in Parliament, and they did, and then the government came up with a well thought-through policy. They decided that they were going to allow for this, but only in places that applied for a license, and would be monitored, and would keep track of the procedure and the health of these children and actually have real data going forward. I would imagine that they're going to very soon have their first patients.
As you mentioned, one researcher recently traveled to Mexico from New York to carry out the so-called "three-parent baby" procedure in order to escape the FDA's rules. What's your take on scientists having to leave their own jurisdictions to advance their research programs under less scrutiny?
I think it's a problem when people who have a real medical need have to leave their own country to get truly effective treatment for it. On the other hand, we're seeing lots of people going abroad to countries that don't monitor all the claims that clinics are making about their treatments. So you have stem cell clinics in all sorts of places that are making all sorts of ridiculous promises. They're not delivering those results, and in some cases, they're doing harm.
"Advances in stem cell biology and reproductive biology are a much bigger challenge to our conventional ideas about heredity than CRISPR is."
It's a tricky tension for sure. Speaking of gene editing humans, you mention in the book that one of the CRISPR pioneers, Jennifer Doudna, now has recurring nightmares about Hitler. Do you think that her fears about eugenics being revived with gene editing are justified?
The word "eugenics" has a long history and it's meant different things to different people. So we have to do a better job of talking about it in the future if we really want to talk about the risks and the promises of technology like CRISPR. Eugenics in its most toxic form was an ideology that let governments, including the United States, sterilize their own citizens by the tens of thousands. Then Nazi Germany also used eugenics as a justification to exterminate many more people.
Nobody's talking about that with CRISPR. Now, are people concerned that we are going to wipe out lots of human genetic diversity with it? That would be a bad thing, but I'm skeptical that would actually ever happen. You would have to have some sort of science fiction one-world government that required every new child to be born with IVF. It's not something that keeps me up at night. Honestly, I think we have much bigger problems to worry about.
What is the biggest danger relating to genetics that we should be aware of?
Part of what made eugenics such a toxic ideology was that it was used as a justification for indifference. In other words, if there are problems in society, like a large swath of people who are living in poverty, well, there's nothing you can do about it because it must be due to genetics.
If you look at genetics as being the sole place where you can solve humanity's problems, then you're going to say well, there's no point in trying to clean up the environment or trying to improve human welfare.
A major theme in your book is that we should not narrow our focus on genes as the only type of heredity. We also may inherit some epigenetic marks, some of our mother's microbiome and mitochondria, and importantly, our culture and our environment. Why does an expanded view of heredity matter?
We should think about the world that our children are going to inherit, and their children, and their children. They're going to inherit our genes, but they're also going to inherit this planet and we're doing things that are going to have an incredibly long-lasting impact on it. I think global warming is one of the biggest. When you put carbon dioxide into the air, it stays there for a very, very long time. If we stopped emitting carbon dioxide now, the Earth would stay warm for many centuries. We should think about tinkering with the future of genetic heredity, but I think we should also be doing that with our environmental heredity and our cultural heredity.
At the end of the book, you discuss some very bizarre possibilities for inheritance that could be made possible through induced pluripotent stem cell technology and IVF -- like four-parent babies, men producing eggs, and children with 8-celled embryos as their parents. If this is where reproductive medicine is headed, how can ethics keep up?
I'm not sure actually. I think that these advances in stem cell biology and reproductive biology are a much bigger challenge to our conventional ideas about heredity than CRISPR is. With CRISPR, you might be tweaking a gene here and there, but they're still genes in an embryo which then becomes a person, who would then have children -- the process our species has been familiar with for a long time.
"We have to recognize that we need a new language that fits with the science of heredity in the 21st century."
We all assume that there's no way to find a fundamentally different way of passing down genes, but it turns out that it's not really that hard to turn a skin cell from a cheek scraping into an egg or sperm. There are some challenges that still have to be worked out to make this something that could be carried out a lot in labs, but I don't see any huge barriers to it. Ethics doesn't even have the language to discuss the possibilities. Like for example, one person producing both male and female sex cells, which are then fertilized to produce embryos so that you have a child who only has one parent. How do we even talk about that? I don't know. But that's coming up fast.
We haven't developed our language as quickly as the technology itself. So how do we move forward?
We have to recognize that we need a new language that fits with the science of heredity in the 21st century. I think one of the biggest problems we have as a society is that most of our understanding about these issues largely comes from what we learned in grade school and high school in biology class. A high school biology class, even now, gets up to Mendel and then stops. Gregor Mendel is a great place to start, but it's a really bad place to stop talking about heredity.
[Ed. Note: Zimmer's book can be purchased through your retailer of choice here.]
The cover of Zimmer's new book about genetics.
In November 2020, messenger RNA catapulted into the public consciousness when the first COVID-19 vaccines were authorized for emergency use. Around the same time, an equally groundbreaking yet relatively unheralded application of mRNA technology was taking place at a London hospital.
Over the past two decades, there's been increasing interest in harnessing mRNA — molecules present in all of our cells that act like digital tape recorders, copying instructions from DNA in the cell nucleus and carrying them to the protein-making structures — to create a whole new class of therapeutics.
Scientists realized that artificial mRNA, designed in the lab, could be used to instruct our cells to produce certain antibodies, turning our bodies into vaccine-making factories, or to recognize and attack tumors. More recently, researchers recognized that mRNA could also be used to make another groundbreaking technology far more accessible to more patients: gene editing. The gene-editing tool CRISPR has generated plenty of hype for its potential to cure inherited diseases. But delivering CRISPR to the body is complicated and costly.
"Most gene editing involves taking cells out of the patient, treating them and then giving them back, which is an extremely expensive process," explains Drew Weissman, professor of medicine at the University of Pennsylvania, who was involved in developing the mRNA technology behind the COVID-19 vaccines.
But last November, a Massachusetts-based biotech company called Intellia Therapeutics showed it was possible to use mRNA to make the CRISPR system inside the body, eliminating the need to extract cells out of the body and edit them in a lab. Just as mRNA can instruct our cells to produce antibodies against a viral infection, it can also teach them to produce the two molecular components that make up CRISPR — a guide molecule and a cutting protein — to snip out a problem gene.
"The pandemic has really shown that not only are mRNA approaches viable, they could in certain circumstances be vastly superior to more traditional technologies."
In Intellia's London-based clinical trial, the company applied this for the first time in a patient with a rare inherited liver disease known as hereditary transthyretin amyloidosis with polyneuropathy. The disease causes a toxic protein to build up in a person's organs and is typically fatal. In a company press release, Intellia's president and CEO John Leonard swiftly declared that its mRNA-based CRISPR therapy could usher in a "new era of potential genome editing cures."
Weissman predicts that turning CRISPR into an affordable therapy will become the next major frontier for mRNA over the coming decade. His lab is currently working on an mRNA-based CRISPR treatment for sickle cell disease. More than 300,000 babies are born with sickle cell every year, mainly in lower income nations.
"There is a FDA-approved cure, but it involves taking the bone marrow out of the person, and then giving it back which is prohibitively expensive," he says. It also requires a patient to have a matched bone marrow done. "We give an intravenous injection of mRNA lipid nanoparticles that target CRISPR to the bone marrow stem cells in the patient, which is easy, and much less expensive."
Meanwhile, the overwhelming success of the COVID-19 vaccines has focused attention on other ways of using mRNA to bolster the immune system against threats ranging from other infectious diseases to cancer.
The practicality of mRNA vaccines – relatively small quantities are required to induce an antibody response – coupled with their adaptable design, mean companies like Moderna are now targeting pathogens like Zika, chikungunya and cytomegalovirus, or CMV, which previously considered commercially unviable for vaccine developers. This is because outbreaks have been relatively sporadic, and these viruses mainly affect people in low-income nations who can't afford to pay premium prices for a vaccine. But mRNA technology means that jabs could be produced on a flexible basis, when required, at relatively low cost.
Other scientists suggest that mRNA could even provide a means of developing a universal influenza vaccine, a goal that's long been the Holy Grail for vaccinologists around the world.
"The mRNA technology allows you to pick out bits of the virus that you want to induce immunity to," says Michael Mulqueen, vice president of business development at eTheRNA, a Belgium-based biotech that's developing mRNA-based vaccines for malaria and HIV, as well as various forms of cancer. "This means you can get the immune system primed to the bits of the virus that don't vary so much between strains. So you could actually have a single vaccine that protects against a whole raft of different variants of the same virus, offering more universal coverage."
Before mRNA became synonymous with vaccines, its biggest potential was for cancer treatments. BioNTech, the German biotech company that collaborated with Pfizer to develop the first authorized COVID-19 vaccine, was initially founded to utilize mRNA for personalized cancer treatments, and the company remains interested in cancers ranging from melanoma to breast cancer.
One of the major hurdles in treating cancer has been the fact that tumors can look very different from one person to the next. It's why conventional approaches, such as chemotherapy or radiation, don't work for every patient. But weaponizing mRNA against cancer primes the immune cells with the tumor's specific genetic sequence, training the patient's body to attack their own unique type of cancer.
"It means you're able to think about personalizing cancer treatments down to specific subgroups of patients," says Mulqueen. "For example, eTheRNA are developing a renal cell carcinoma treatment which will be targeted at around 20% of these patients, who have specific tumor types. We're hoping to take that to human trials next year, but the challenge is trying to identify the right patients for the treatment at an early stage."
Repairing Damaged mRNA
While hopes are high that mRNA could usher in new cancer treatments and make CRISPR more accessible, a growing number of companies are also exploring an alternative to gene editing, known as RNA editing.
In genetic disorders, the mRNA in certain cells is impaired due to a rogue gene defect, and so the body ceases to produce a particular vital protein. Instead of permanently deleting the problem gene with CRISPR, the idea behind RNA editing is to inject small pieces of synthetic mRNA to repair the existing mRNA. Scientists think this approach will allow normal protein production to resume.
Over the past few years, this approach has gathered momentum, as some researchers have recognized that it holds certain key advantages over CRISPR. Companies from Belgium to Japan are now looking at RNA editing to treat all kinds of disorders, from Huntingdon's disease, to amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS, and certain types of cancer.
"With RNA editing, you don't need to make any changes to the DNA," explains Daniel de Boer, CEO of Dutch biotech ProQR, which is looking to treat rare genetic disorders that cause blindness. "Changes to the DNA are permanent, so if something goes wrong, that may not be desirable. With RNA editing, it's a temporary change, so we dose patients with our drugs once or twice a year."
Last month, ProQR reported a landmark case study, in which a patient with a rare form of blindness called Leber congenital amaurosis, which affects the retina at the back of the eye, recovered vision after three months of treatment.
"We have seen that this RNA therapy restores vision in people that were completely blind for a year or so," says de Boer. "They were able to see again, to read again. We think there are a large number of other genetic diseases we could go after with this technology. There are thousands of different mutations that can lead to blindness, and we think this technology can target approximately 25% of them."
Ultimately, there's likely to be a role for both RNA editing and CRISPR, depending on the disease. "I think CRISPR is ideally suited for illnesses where you would like to permanently correct a genetic defect," says Joshua Rosenthal of the Marine Biology Laboratory in Chicago. "Whereas RNA editing could be used to treat things like pain, where you might want to reset a neural circuit temporarily over a shorter period of time."
Much of this research has been accelerated by the COVID-19 pandemic, which has played a major role in bringing mRNA to the forefront of people's minds as a therapeutic.
"The pandemic has really shown that not only are mRNA approaches viable, they could in certain circumstances be vastly superior to more traditional technologies," says Mulqueen. "In the future, I would not be surprised if many of the top pharma products are mRNA derived."
"Making Sense of Science" is a monthly podcast that features interviews with leading medical and scientific experts about the latest developments and the big ethical and societal questions they raise. This episode is hosted by science and biotech journalist Emily Mullin, summer editor of the award-winning science outlet Leaps.org.