The news last November that a rogue Chinese scientist had genetically altered the embryos of a pair of Chinese twins shocked the world. But although this use of advanced technology to change the human gene pool was premature, it was a harbinger of how genetic science will alter our healthcare, the way we make babies, the nature of the babies we make, and, ultimately, our sense of who and what we are as a species.
The healthcare applications of the genetics revolution are merely stations along the way to the ultimate destination.
But while the genetics revolution has already begun, we aren't prepared to handle these Promethean technologies responsibly.
By identifying the structure of DNA in the 1950s, Watson, Crick, Wilkins, and Franklin showed that the book of life was written in the DNA double helix. When the human genome project was completed in 2003, we saw how this book of human life could be transcribed. Painstaking research paired with advanced computational algorithms then showed what increasing numbers of genes do and how the genetic book of life can be read.
Now, with the advent of precision gene editing tools like CRISPR, we are seeing that the book of life -- and all biology -- can be re-written. Biology is being recognized as another form of readable, writable, and hackable information technology with we humans as the coders.
The impact of this transformation is being first experienced in our healthcare. Gene therapies including those extracting, re-engineering, then reintroducing a person's own cells enhanced into cancer-fighting supercells are already performing miracles in clinical trials. Thousands of applications have already been submitted to regulators across the globe for trials using gene therapies to address a host of other diseases.
Recently, the first gene editing of cells inside a person's body was deployed to treat the genetically relatively simple metabolic disorder Hunter syndrome, with many more applications to come. These new approaches are only the very first steps in our shift from the current system of generalized medicine based on population averages to precision medicine based on each patient's individual biology to predictive medicine based on AI-generated estimations of a person's future health state.
Jamie Metzl's groundbreaking new book, Hacking Darwin: Genetic Engineering and the Future of Humanity, explores how the genetic revolution is transforming our healthcare, the way we make babies, and the nature of and babies we make, what this means for each of us, and what we must all do now to prepare for what's coming.
This shift in our healthcare will ensure that millions and then billions of people will have their genomes sequenced as the foundation of their treatment. Big data analytics will then be used to compare at scale people's genotypes (what their genes say) to their phenotypes (how those genes are expressed over the course of their lives).
These massive datasets of genetic and life information will then make it possible to go far beyond the simple genetic analysis of today and to understand far more complex human diseases and traits influenced by hundreds or thousands of genes. Our understanding of this complex genetic system within the vaster ecosystem of our bodies and the environment around us will transform healthcare for the better and help us cure terrible diseases that have plagued our ancestors for millennia.
But as revolutionary as this challenge will be for medicine, the healthcare applications of the genetics revolution are merely stations along the way to the ultimate destination – a deep and fundamental transformation of our evolutionary trajectory as a species.
A first inkling of where we are heading can be seen in the direct-to-consumer genetic testing industry. Many people around the world have now sent their cheek swabs to companies like 23andMe for analysis. The information that comes back can tell people a lot about relatively simple genetic traits like carrier status for single gene mutation diseases, eye color, or whether they hate the taste of cilantro, but the information about complex traits like athletic predisposition, intelligence, or personality style today being shared by some of these companies is wildly misleading.
This will not always be the case. As the genetic and health data pools grow, analysis of large numbers of sequenced genomes will make it possible to apply big data analytics to predict some very complex genetic disease risks and the genetic components of traits like height, IQ, temperament, and personality style with increasing accuracy. This process, called "polygenic scoring," is already being offered in beta stage by a few companies and will become an ever bigger part of our lives going forward.
The most profound application of all this will be in our baby-making. Before making a decision about which of the fertilized eggs to implant, women undergoing in vitro fertilization can today elect to have a small number of cells extracted from their pre-implanted embryos and sequenced. With current technology, this can be used to screen for single-gene mutation diseases and other relatively simple disorders. Polygenic scoring, however, will soon make it possible to screen these early stage pre-implanted embryos to assess their risk of complex genetic diseases and even to make predictions about the heritable parts of complex human traits. The most intimate elements of being human will start feeling like high-pressure choices needing to be made by parents.
The limit of our imagination will become the most significant barrier to our recasting biology.
Adult stem cell technologies will then likely make it possible to generate hundreds or thousands of a woman's own eggs from her blood sample or skin graft. This would blow open the doors of reproductive possibility and allow parents to choose embryos with exceptional potential capabilities from a much larger set of options.
The complexity of human biology will place some limits to the extent of possible gene edits that might be made to these embryos, but all of biology, including our own, is extremely flexible. How else could all the diversity of life have emerged from a single cell nearly four billion years ago? The limit of our imagination will become the most significant barrier to our recasting biology.
But while we humans are gaining the powers of the gods, we aren't at all ready to use them.
The same tools that will help cure our worst afflictions, save our children, help us live longer, healthier, more robust lives will also open the door to potential abuses. Prospective parents with the best of intentions or governments with lax regulatory structures or aggressive ideas of how population-wide genetic engineering might be used to enhance national competitiveness or achieve some other goal could propel us into a genetic arms race that could undermine our essential diversity, dangerously divide societies, lead to dangerous, destabilizing, and potentially even deadly conflicts between us, and threaten our very humanity.
But while the advance of genetic technologies is inevitable, how it plays out is anything but. If we don't want the genetic revolution to undermine our species or lead to grave conflicts between genetic haves and have nots or between societies opting in and those opting out, now is the time when we need to make smart decisions based on our individual and collective best values. Although the technology driving the genetic revolution is new, the value systems we will need to optimize the benefits and minimize the harms of this massive transformation are ones we have been developing for thousands of years.
And while some very smart and well-intentioned scientists have been meeting to explore what comes next, it won't be enough for a few of even our wisest prophets to make decisions about the future of our species that will impact everyone. We'll also need smart regulations on both the national and international levels.
Every country will need to have its own regulatory guidelines for human genetic engineering based on both international best practices and the country's unique traditions and values. Because we are all one species, however, we will also ultimately need to develop guidelines that can apply to all of us.
As a first step toward making this possible, we must urgently launch a global, species-wide education effort and inclusive dialogue on the future of human genetic engineering that can eventually inform global norms that will need to underpin international regulations. This process will not be easy, but the alternative of an unregulated genetic arms race would be far worse.
The overlapping genomics and AI revolutions may seem like distant science fiction but are closer than you think. Far sooner than most people recognize, the inherent benefits of these technologies and competition between us will spark rapid adoption. Before that spark ignites, we have a brief moment to come together as a species like we never have before to articulate and translate into action the future we jointly envision. The north star of our best shared values can help us navigate the almost unimaginable opportunities and very real challenges that lie ahead.
Jamie Rettinger was still in his thirties when he first noticed a tiny streak of brown running through the thumbnail of his right hand. It slowly grew wider and the skin underneath began to deteriorate before he went to a local dermatologist in 2013. The doctor thought it was a wart and tried scooping it out, treating the affected area for three years before finally removing the nail bed and sending it off to a pathology lab for analysis.
I have some bad news for you; what we removed was a five-millimeter melanoma, a cancerous tumor that often spreads, Jamie recalls being told on his return visit. "I'd never heard of cancer coming through a thumbnail," he says. None of his doctors had ever mentioned it either. "I just thought I was being treated for a wart." But nothing was healing and it continued to bleed.
A few months later a surgeon amputated the top half of his thumb. Lymph node biopsy tested negative for spread of the cancer and when the bandages finally came off, Jamie thought his medical issues were resolved.
Melanoma is the deadliest form of skin cancer. About 85,000 people are diagnosed with it each year in the U.S. and more than 8,000 die of the cancer when it spreads to other parts of the body, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
There are two peaks in diagnosis of melanoma; one is in younger women ages 30-40 and often is tied to past use of tanning beds; the second is older men 60+ and is related to outdoor activity from farming to sports. Light-skinned people have a twenty-times greater risk of melanoma than do people with dark skin.
"It was pretty weird, I was totally blasted away. Who had thought of this?"
Jamie had a follow up PET scan about six months after his surgery. A suspicious spot on his lung led to a biopsy that came back positive for melanoma. The cancer had spread. Treatment with a monoclonal antibody (nivolumab/Opdivo®) didn't prove effective and he was referred to the Hillman Cancer Center at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, a four-hour drive from his home in western Ohio.
An alternative monoclonal antibody treatment brought on such bad side effects, diarrhea as often as 15 times a day, that it took more than a week of hospitalization to stabilize his condition. The only options left were experimental approaches in clinical trials.
"When I graduated from medical school, in 2005, melanoma was a death sentence" with a cure rate in the single digits, says Dr. Diwakar Davar, 39, an oncologist at Hillman who specializes in skin cancer. That began to change in 2010 with introduction of the first immunotherapies, monoclonal antibodies, to treat cancer. The antibodies attach to PD-1, a receptor on the surface of T cells of the immune system and on cancer cells. Antibody treatment boosted the melanoma cure rate to about 30 percent. The search was on to understand why some people responded to these drugs and others did not.
At the same time, there was a growing understanding of the role that bacteria in the gut, the gut microbiome, plays in helping to train and maintain the function of the body's various immune cells. Perhaps the bacteria also plays a role in shaping the immune response to cancer therapy.
One clue came from genetically identical mice. Animals ordered from different suppliers sometimes responded differently to the experiments being performed. That difference was traced to different compositions of their gut microbiome; transferring the microbiome from one animal to another in a process known as fecal transplant (FMT) could change their responses to disease or treatment.
When researchers looked at humans, they found that the patients who responded well to immunotherapies had a gut microbiome that looked like healthy normal folks, but patients who didn't respond had missing or reduced strains of bacteria.
Davar knew that FMT had a very successful cure rate in treating the gut dysbiosis of C. difficile infection and he wondered if a fecal transplant from a patient who had responded well to cancer immunotherapy treatment might improve the cure rate of patients who did not originally respond to immunotherapies for melanoma.
"It was pretty weird, I was totally blasted away. Who had thought of this?" Jamie first thought when the hypothesis was explained to him. But Davar's explanation that the procedure might restore some of the beneficial bacterial his gut was lacking, convinced him to try. He quickly signed on in October 2018 to be the first person in the clinical trial.
Fecal donations go through the same safety procedures of screening for and inactivating diseases that are used in processing blood donations to make them safe for transfusion. The procedure itself uses a standard hollow colonoscope designed to screen for colon cancer and remove polyps. The transplant is inserted through the center of the flexible tube.
Most patients are sedated for procedures that use a colonoscope but Jamie doesn't respond to those drugs: "You can't knock me out. I was watching them on the TV going up my own butt. It was kind of unreal at that point," he says. "There were about twelve people in there watching because no one had seen this done before."
A test two weeks after the procedure showed that the FMT had engrafted and the once-missing bacteria were thriving in his gut. More importantly, his body was responding to another monoclonal antibody (pembrolizumab/Keytruda®) and signs of melanoma began to shrink. Every three months he made the four-hour drive from home to Pittsburgh for six rounds of treatment with the antibody drug.
"We were very, very lucky that the first patient had a great response," says Davar. "It allowed us to believe that even though we failed with the next six, we were on the right track. We just needed to tweak the [fecal] cocktail a little better" and enroll patients in the study who had less aggressive tumor growth and were likely to live long enough to complete the extensive rounds of therapy. Six of 15 patients responded positively in the pilot clinical trial that was published in the journal Science.
Davar believes they are beginning to understand the biological mechanisms of why some patients initially do not respond to immunotherapy but later can with a FMT. It is tied to the background level of inflammation produced by the interaction between the microbiome and the immune system. That paper is not yet published.
It has been almost a year since the last in his series of cancer treatments and Jamie has no measurable disease. He is cautiously optimistic that his cancer is not simply in remission but is gone for good. "I'm still scared every time I get my scans, because you don't know whether it is going to come back or not. And to realize that it is something that is totally out of my control."
"It was hard for me to regain trust" after being misdiagnosed and mistreated by several doctors he says. But his experience at Hillman helped to restore that trust "because they were interested in me, not just fixing the problem."
He is grateful for the support provided by family and friends over the last eight years. After a pause and a sigh, the ruggedly built 47-year-old says, "If everyone else was dead in my family, I probably wouldn't have been able to do it."
"I never hesitated to ask a question and I never hesitated to get a second opinion." But Jamie acknowledges the experience has made him more aware of the need for regular preventive medical care and a primary care physician. That person might have caught his melanoma at an earlier stage when it was easier to treat.
Davar continues to work on clinical studies to optimize this treatment approach. Perhaps down the road, screening the microbiome will be standard for melanoma and other cancers prior to using immunotherapies, and the FMT will be as simple as swallowing a handful of freeze-dried capsules off the shelf rather than through a colonoscopy.
In Sydney, Australia, in the basement of an inner-city high-rise, lives a mass of unexpected inhabitants: millions of maggots. The insects are far from unwelcome. They are there to feast on the food waste generated by the building's human residents.
Goterra, the start-up that installed the maggots in the building in December, belongs to the rapidly expanding insect agriculture industry, which is experiencing a surge of investment worldwide.
The maggots – the larvae of the black soldier fly – are voracious, unfussy eaters. As adult flies, they don't eat, so the young fatten up swiftly on whatever they can get. Goterra's basement colony can munch through 5 metric tons of waste in a day.
"Maggots are nature's cleaners," says Bob Gordon, Head of Growth at Goterra. "They're a great tool to manage waste streams."
Their capacity to consume presents a neat response to the problem of food waste, which contributes up to 8% of global greenhouse gas emissions each year as it rots in landfill.
"The maggots eat the food fairly fresh," Gordon says. "So, there's minimal degradation and you don't get those methane emissions."
Alongside their ability to devour waste, the soldier fly larvae hold further agricultural promise: they yield an incredibly efficient protein. After the maggots have binged for about 12 days, Goterra harvests and processes them into a protein-rich livestock feed. Their excrement, known as frass, is also collected and turned into soil conditioner.
"We are producing protein in a basement," says Gordon. "It's urban farming – really sustainable, urban farming."
Goterra's module in the basement at Barangaroo, Sydney.
Supplied by Goterra
Goterra's founder Olympia Yarger started producing the insects in "buckets in her backyard" in 2016. Today, Goterra has a large-scale processing plant and has developed proprietary modules – in shipping containers – that use robotics to manage the larvae.
The modules have been installed on site at municipal buildings, hospitals, supermarkets, several McDonald's restaurants, and a range of smaller enterprises in Australia. Users pay a subscription fee and simply pour in the waste; Goterra visits once a fortnight to harvest the bugs.
Insect agriculture is well established outside of the West, and the practice is gaining traction around the world. China has mega-facilities that can process hundreds of tons of waste in a day. In Kenya, a program recently trained 2000 farmers in soldier fly farming to boost their economic security. French biotech company InnovaFeed, in partnership with US agricultural heavyweight ADM, plans to build "the world's largest insect protein facility" in Illinois this year.
"The [maggots] are science fiction on earth. Watching them work is awe-inspiring."
But the concept is still not to everyone's taste.
"This is still a topic that I say is a bit like black liquorice – people tend to either really like it or really don't," says Wendy Lu McGill, Communications Director at the North American Coalition of Insect Agriculture (NACIA).
Formed in 2016, NACIA now has over 100 members – including researchers and commercial producers of black soldier flies, meal worms and crickets.
McGill says there have been a few iterations of insect agriculture in the US – beginning with worms produced for bait after World War II then shifting to food for exotic pets. The current focus – "insects as food and feed" – took root about a decade ago, with the establishment of the first commercial farms for this purpose.
"We're starting to see more expansion in the U.S. and a lot of the larger investments have been for black soldier fly producers," McGill says. "They tend to have larger facilities and the animal feed market they're looking at is potentially quite large."
InnovaFeed's Illinois facility is set to produce 60,000 metric tons of animal feed protein per year.
"They'll be trying to employ many different circular principles," McGill says of the project. "For example, the heat from the feed factory – the excess heat that would normally just be vented – will be used to heat the other side that's raising the black soldier fly."
Although commercial applications have started to flourish recently, scientific knowledge of the black soldier fly's potential has existed for decades.
Dr. Jeffery Tomberlin, an entomologist at Texas A&M University, has been studying the insect for over 20 years, contributing to key technologies used in the industry. He also founded Evo, a black soldier fly company in Texas, which feeds its larvae the waste from a local bakery and distillery.
"They are science fiction on earth," he says of the maggots. "Watching them work is awe-inspiring."
Tomberlin says fly farms can work effectively at different scales, and present possibilities for non-Western countries to shift towards "commodity independence."
"You don't have to have millions of dollars invested to be successful in producing this insect," he says. "[A farm] can be as simple as an open barn along the equator to a 30,000 square-foot indoor facility in the Netherlands."
As the world's population balloons, food insecurity is an increasing concern. By 2050, the UN predicts that to feed our projected population we will need to ramp up food production by at least 60%. Insect agriculture, which uses very little land and water compared to traditional livestock farming, could play a key role.
Insects may become more common human food, but the current commercial focus is animal feed. Aquaculture is a key market, with insects presenting an alternative to fish meal derived from over-exploited stocks. Insect meal is also increasingly popular in pet food, particularly in Europe.
While recent investment has been strong – NACIA says 2020 was the best year yet – reaching a scale that can match existing agricultural industries and providing a competitive price point are still hurdles for insect agriculture.
But COVID-19 has strengthened the argument for new agricultural approaches, such as the decentralized, indoor systems and circular principles employed by insect farms.
"This has given the world a preview – which no one wanted – of [future] supply chain disruptions," says McGill.
As the industry works to meet demand, Tomberlin predicts diversification and product innovation: "I think food science is going to play a big part in that. They can take an insect and create ice cream." (Dried soldier fly larvae "taste kind of like popcorn," if you were wondering.)
Tomberlin says the insects could even become an interplanetary protein source: "I do believe in that. I mean, if we're going to colonize other planets, we need to be sustainable."
But he issues a word of caution about the industry growing too big, too fast: "I think we as an industry need to be very careful of how we harness and apply [our knowledge]. The black soldier fly is considered the crown jewel today, but if it's mismanaged, it can be relegated back to a past."
Goterra's Gordon also warns against rushing into mass production: "If you're just replacing big intensive animal agriculture with big intensive animal agriculture with more efficient animals, then what's the change you're really effecting?"
But he expects the industry will continue its rise though the next decade, and Goterra – fuelled by recent $8 million Series A funding – plans to expand internationally this year.
"Within 10 years' time, I would like to see the vast majority of our unavoidable food waste being used to produce maggots to go into a protein application," Gordon says.
"There's no lack of demand. And there's no lack of food waste."