Renowned genetics pioneer Dr. J Craig Venter is no stranger to controversy.
Back in 2000, he famously raced the public Human Genome Project to decode all three billion letters of the human genome for the first time. A decade later, he ignited a new debate when his team created a bacterial cell with a synthesized genome.
Most recently, he's jumped back into the fray with a study in the September issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences about the predictive potential of genomic data to identify individual traits such as voice, facial structure and skin color.
The new study raises significant questions about the privacy of genetic data.
His study applied whole-genome sequencing and statistical modeling to predict traits in 1,061 people of diverse ancestry. His approach aimed to reconstruct a person's physical characteristics based on DNA, and 74 percent of the time, his algorithm could correctly identify the individual in a random lineup of 10 people from his company's database.
While critics have been quick to cast doubt on the plausibility of his claims, the ability to discern people's observable traits, or phenotypes, from their genomes may grow more precise as technology improves, raising significant questions about the privacy and usage of genetic information in the long term.
J. Craig Venter showing slides from his recent study on facial prediction at the Summit Conference in Los Angeles on Nov. 3, 2017.
(Courtesy of Kira Peikoff)
Critics: Study Was Incomplete, Problematic
Before even redressing these potential legal and ethical considerations, some scientists simply said the study's main result was invalid. They pointed out that the methodology worked much better in distinguishing between people of different ethnicities than those of the same ethnicity. One of the most outspoken critics, Yaniv Erlich, a geneticist at Columbia University, said, "The method doesn't work. The results were like, 'If you have a lineup of ten people, you can predict eight."
Erlich, who reviewed Venter's paper for Science, where it was rejected, said that he came up with the same results—correctly predicting eight of ten people—by just looking at demographic factors such as age, gender and ethnicity. He added that Venter's recent rebuttal to his criticism was that 'Once we have thousands of phenotypes, it might work better.' But that, Erlich argued, would be "a major breach of privacy. Nobody has thousands of phenotypes for people."
Other critics suggested that the study's results discourage the sharing of genetic data, which is becoming increasingly important for medical research. They go one step further and imply that people's possible hesitation to share their genetic information in public databases may actually play into Venter's hands.
Venter's own company, Human Longevity Inc., aims to build the world's most comprehensive private database on human genotypes and phenotypes. The vastness of this information stands to improve the accuracy of whole genome and microbiome sequencing for individuals—analyses that come at a hefty price tag. Today, Human Longevity Inc. will sequence your genome and perform a battery of other health-related tests at an entry cost of $4900, going up to $25,000. Venter initially agreed to comment for this article, but then could not be reached.
"The bigger issue is how do we understand and use genetic information and avoid harming people."
Opens Up Pandora's Box of Ethical Issues
Whether Venter's study is valid may not be as important as the Pandora's box of potential ethical and legal issues that it raises for future consideration. "I think this story is one along a continuum of stories we've had on the issue of identifiability based on genomic information in the past decade," said Amy McGuire, a biomedical ethics professor at Baylor College of Medicine. "It does raise really interesting and important questions about privacy, and socially, how we respond to these types of scientific advancements. A lot of our focus from a policy and ethics perspective is to protect privacy."
McGuire, who is also the Director of the Center for Medical Ethics and Health Policy at Baylor, added that while protecting privacy is very important, "the bigger issue is how do we understand and use genetic information and avoid harming people." While we've taken "baby steps," she said, towards enacting laws in the U.S. that fight genetic determinism—such as the Genetic Information and Nondiscrimination Act, which prohibits discrimination based on genetic information in health insurance and employment—some areas remain unprotected, such as for life insurance and disability.
J. Craig Venter showing slides from his recent study on facial prediction at the Summit Conference in Los Angeles on Nov. 3, 2017.
(Courtesy of Kira Peikoff)
Physical reconstructions like those in Venter's study could also be inappropriately used by law enforcement, said Leslie Francis, a law and philosophy professor at the University of Utah, who has written about the ethical and legal issues related to sharing genomic data.
"If [Venter's] findings, or findings like them, hold up, the implications would be significant," Francis said. Law enforcement is increasingly using DNA identification from genetic material left at crime scenes to weed out innocent and guilty suspects, she explained. This adds another potentially complicating layer.
"There is a shift here, from using DNA sequencing techniques to match other DNA samples—as when semen obtained from a rape victim is then matched (or not) with a cheek swab from a suspect—to using DNA sequencing results to predict observable characteristics," Francis said. She added that while the former necessitates having an actual DNA sample for a match, the latter can use DNA to pre-emptively (and perhaps inaccurately) narrow down suspects.
"My worry is that if this [the study's methodology] turns out to be sort-of accurate, people will think it is better than what it is," said Francis. "If law enforcement comes to rely on it, there will be a host of false positives and false negatives. And we'll face new questions, [such as] 'Which is worse? Picking an innocent as guilty, or failing to identify someone who is guilty?'"
Risking Privacy Involves a Tradeoff
When people voluntarily risk their own privacy, that involves a tradeoff, McGuire said. A 2014 study that she conducted among people who were very sick, or whose children were very sick, found that more than half were willing to share their health information, despite concerns about privacy, because they saw a big benefit in advancing research on their conditions.
"We've focused a lot of our policy attention on restricting access, but we don't have a system of accountability when there's a breach."
"To make leaps and bounds in medicine and genomics, we need to create a database of millions of people signing on to share their genetic and health information in order to improve research and clinical care," McGuire said. "They are going to risk their privacy, and we have a social obligation to protect them."
That also means "punishing bad actors," she continued. "We've focused a lot of our policy attention on restricting access, but we don't have a system of accountability when there's a breach."
Even though most people using genetic information have good intentions, the consequences if not are troubling. "All you need is one bad actor who decimates the trust in the system, and it has catastrophic consequences," she warned. That hasn't happened on a massive scale yet, and even if it did, some experts argue that obtaining the data is not the real risk; what is more concerning is hacking individuals' genetic information to be used against them, such as to prove someone is unfit for a particular job because of a genetic condition like Alzheimer's, or that a parent is unfit for custody because of a genetic disposition to mental illness.
Venter, in fact, told an audience at the recent Summit conference in Los Angeles that his new study's approach could not only predict someone's physical appearance from their DNA, but also some of their psychological traits, such as the propensity for an addictive personality. In the future, he said, it will be possible to predict even more about mental health from the genome.
What is most at risk on a massive scale, however, is not so much genetic information as demographic identifiers included in medical records, such as birth dates and social security numbers, said Francis, the law and philosophy professor. "The much more interesting and lucrative security breaches typically involve not people interested in genetic information per se, but people interested in the information in health records that you can't change."
Hospitals have been hacked for this kind of information, including an incident at the Veterans Administration in 2006, in which the laptop and external hard drive of an agency employee that contained unencrypted information on 26.5 million patients were stolen from the employee's house.
So, what can people do to protect themselves? "Don't share anything you wouldn't want the world to see," Francis said. "And don't click 'I agree' without actually reading privacy policies or terms and conditions. They may surprise you."
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.