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.
In June, a team of surgeons at Duke University Hospital implanted the latest model of an artificial heart in a 39-year-old man with severe heart failure, a condition in which the heart doesn't pump properly. The man's mechanical heart, made by French company Carmat, is a new generation artificial heart and the first of its kind to be transplanted in the United States. It connects to a portable external power supply and is designed to keep the patient alive until a replacement organ becomes available.
Many patients die while waiting for a heart transplant, but artificial hearts can bridge the gap. Though not a permanent solution for heart failure, artificial hearts have saved countless lives since their first implantation in 1982.
What might surprise you is that the origin of the artificial heart dates back decades before, when an inventive television actor teamed up with a famous doctor to design and patent the first such device.
A man of many talents
Paul Winchell was an entertainer in the 1950s and 60s, rising to fame as a ventriloquist and guest-starring as an actor on programs like "The Ed Sullivan Show" and "Perry Mason." When children's animation boomed in the 1960s, Winchell made a name for himself as a voice actor on shows like "The Smurfs," "Winnie the Pooh," and "The Jetsons." He eventually became famous for originating the voices of Tigger from "Winnie the Pooh" and Gargamel from "The Smurfs," among many others.
But Winchell wasn't just an entertainer: He also had a quiet passion for science and medicine. Between television gigs, Winchell busied himself working as a medical hypnotist and acupuncturist, treating the same Hollywood stars he performed alongside. When he wasn't doing that, Winchell threw himself into engineering and design, building not only the ventriloquism dummies he used on his television appearances but a host of products he'd dreamed up himself. Winchell spent hours tinkering with his own inventions, such as a set of battery-powered gloves and something called a "flameless lighter." Over the course of his life, Winchell designed and patented more than 30 of these products – mostly novelties, but also serious medical devices, such as a portable blood plasma defroster.
|Ventriloquist Paul Winchell with Jerry Mahoney, his dummy, in 1951|
A meeting of the minds
In the early 1950s, Winchell appeared on a variety show called the "Arthur Murray Dance Party" and faced off in a dance competition with the legendary Ricardo Montalban (Winchell won). At a cast party for the show later that same night, Winchell met Dr. Henry Heimlich – the same doctor who would later become famous for inventing the Heimlich maneuver, who was married to Murray's daughter. The two hit it off immediately, bonding over their shared interest in medicine. Before long, Heimlich invited Winchell to come observe him in the operating room at the hospital where he worked. Winchell jumped at the opportunity, and not long after he became a frequent guest in Heimlich's surgical theatre, fascinated by the mechanics of the human body.
One day while Winchell was observing at the hospital, he witnessed a patient die on the operating table after undergoing open-heart surgery. He was suddenly struck with an idea: If there was some way doctors could keep blood pumping temporarily throughout the body during surgery, patients who underwent risky operations like open-heart surgery might have a better chance of survival. Winchell rushed to Heimlich with the idea – and Heimlich agreed to advise Winchell and look over any design drafts he came up with. So Winchell went to work.
As it turned out, building ventriloquism dummies wasn't that different from building an artificial heart, Winchell noted later in his autobiography – the shifting valves and chambers of the mechanical heart were similar to the moving eyes and opening mouths of his puppets. After each design, Winchell would go back to Heimlich and the two would confer, making adjustments along the way to.
By 1956, Winchell had perfected his design: The "heart" consisted of a bag that could be placed inside the human body, connected to a battery-powered motor outside of the body. The motor enabled the bag to pump blood throughout the body, similar to a real human heart. Winchell received a patent for the design in 1963.
At the time, Winchell never quite got the credit he deserved. Years later, researchers at the University of Utah, working on their own artificial heart, came across Winchell's patent and got in touch with Winchell to compare notes. Winchell ended up donating his patent to the team, which included Dr. Richard Jarvik. Jarvik expanded on Winchell's design and created the Jarvik-7 – the world's first artificial heart to be successfully implanted in a human being in 1982.
The Jarvik-7 has since been replaced with newer, more efficient models made up of different synthetic materials, allowing patients to live for longer stretches without the heart clogging or breaking down. With each new generation of hearts, heart failure patients have been able to live relatively normal lives for longer periods of time and with fewer complications than before – and it never would have been possible without the unsung genius of a puppeteer and his love of science.
Sarah Watts is a health and science writer based in Chicago. Follow her on Twitter at @swattswrites.
Elaine Kamil had just returned home after a few days of business meetings in 2013 when she started having chest pains. At first Kamil, then 66, wasn't worried—she had had some chest pain before and recently went to a cardiologist to do a stress test, which was normal.
"I can't be having a heart attack because I just got checked," she thought, attributing the discomfort to stress and high demands of her job. A pediatric nephrologist at Cedars-Sinai Hospital in Los Angeles, she takes care of critically ill children who are on dialysis or are kidney transplant patients. Supporting families through difficult times and answering calls at odd hours is part of her daily routine, and often leaves her exhausted.
She figured the pain would go away. But instead, it intensified that night. Kamil's husband drove her to the Cedars-Sinai hospital, where she was admitted to the coronary care unit. It turned out she wasn't having a heart attack after all. Instead, she was diagnosed with a much less common but nonetheless dangerous heart condition called takotsubo syndrome, or broken heart syndrome.
A heart attack happens when blood flow to the heart is obstructed—such as when an artery is blocked—causing heart muscle tissue to die. In takotsubo syndrome, the blood flow isn't blocked, but the heart doesn't pump it properly. The heart changes its shape and starts to resemble a Japanese fishing device called tako-tsubo, a clay pot with a wider body and narrower mouth, used to catch octopus.
"The heart muscle is stunned and doesn't function properly anywhere from three days to three weeks," explains Noel Bairey Merz, the cardiologist at Cedar Sinai who Kamil went to see after she was discharged.
"The heart muscle is stunned and doesn't function properly anywhere from three days to three weeks."
But even though the heart isn't permanently damaged, mortality rates due to takotsubo syndrome are comparable to those of a heart attack, Merz notes—about 4-5% of patients die from the attack, and 20% within the next five years. "It's as bad as a heart attack," Merz says—only it's much less known, even to doctors. The condition affects only about 1% of people, and there are around 15,000 new cases annually. It's diagnosed using a cardiac ventriculogram, an imaging test that allows doctors to see how the heart pumps blood.
Scientists don't fully understand what causes Takotsubo syndrome, but it usually occurs after extreme emotional or physical stress. Doctors think it's triggered by a so-called catecholamine storm, a phenomenon in which the body releases too much catecholamines—hormones involved in the fight-or-flight response. Evolutionarily, when early humans lived in savannas or forests and had to either fight off predators or flee from them, these hormones gave our ancestors the needed strength and stamina to take either action. Released by nerve endings and by the adrenal glands that sit on top of the kidneys, these hormones still flood our bodies in moments of stress, but an overabundance of them could sometimes be damaging.
A recent study by scientists at Harvard Medical School linked increased risk of takotsubo to higher activity in the amygdala, a brain region responsible for emotions that's involved in responses to stress. The scientists believe that chronic stress makes people more susceptible to the syndrome. Notably, one small study suggested that the number of Takotsubo cases increased during the COVID-19 pandemic.
There are no specific drugs to treat takotsubo, so doctors rely on supportive therapies, which include medications typically used for high blood pressure and heart failure. In most cases, the heart returns to its normal shape within a few weeks. "It's a spontaneous recovery—the catecholamine storm is resolved, the injury trigger is removed and the heart heals itself because our bodies have an amazing healing capacity," Merz says. It also helps that tissues remain intact. 'The heart cells don't die, they just aren't functioning properly for some time."
That's the good news. The bad news is that takotsubo is likely to strike again—in 5-20% of patients the condition comes back, sometimes more severe than before.
That's exactly what happened to Kamil. After getting her diagnosis in 2013, she realized that she actually had a previous takotsubo episode. In 2010, she experienced similar symptoms after her son died. "The night after he died, I was having severe chest pain at night, but I was too overwhelmed with grief to do anything about it," she recalls. After a while, the pain subsided and didn't return until three years later.
For weeks after her second attack, she felt exhausted, listless and anxious. "You lose confidence in your body," she says. "You have these little twinges on your chest, or if you start having arrhythmia, and you wonder if this is another episode coming up. It's really unnerving because you don't know how to read these cues." And that's very typical, Merz says. Even when the heart muscle appears to recover, patients don't return to normal right away. They have shortens of breath, they can't exercise, and they stay anxious and worried for a while.
Women over the age of 50 are diagnosed with takotsubo more often than other demographics. However, it happens in men too, although it typically strikes after physical stress, such as a triathlon or an exhausting day of cycling. Young people can also get takotsubo. Older patients are hospitalized more often, but younger people tend to have more severe complications. It could be because an older person may go for a jog while younger one may run a marathon, which would take a stronger toll on the body of a person who's predisposed to the condition.
Notably, the emotional stressors don't always have to be negative—the heart muscle can get out of shape from good emotions, too. "There have been case reports of takotsubo at weddings," Merz says. Moreover, one out of three or four takotsubo patients experience no apparent stress, she adds. "So it could be that it's not so much the catecholamine storm itself, but the body's reaction to it—the physiological reaction deeply embedded into out physiology," she explains.
Merz and her team are working to understand what makes people predisposed to takotsubo. They think a person's genetics play a role, but they haven't yet pinpointed genes that seem to be responsible. Genes code for proteins, which affect how the body metabolizes various compounds, which, in turn, affect the body's response to stress. Pinning down the protein involved in takotsubo susceptibility would allow doctors to develop screening tests and identify those prone to severe repeating attacks. It will also help develop medications that can either prevent it or treat it better than just waiting for the body to heal itself.
Researchers at the Imperial College London recently found that elevated levels of certain types of microRNAs—molecules involved in protein production—increase the chances of developing takotsubo.
In one study, researchers tried treating takotsubo in mice with a drug called suberanilohydroxamic acid, or SAHA, typically used for cancer treatment. The drug improved cardiac health and reversed the broken heart in rodents. It remains to be seen if the drug would have a similar effect on humans. But identifying a drug that shows promise is progress, Merz says. "I'm glad that there's research in this area."