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.
Amber Freed felt she was the happiest mother on earth when she gave birth to twins in March 2017. But that euphoric feeling began to fade over the next few months, as she realized her son wasn't making the same developmental milestones as his sister. "I had a perfect benchmark because they were twins, and I saw that Maxwell was floppy—he didn't have muscle tone and couldn't hold his neck up," she recalls. At first doctors placated her with statements that boys sometimes develop slower than girls, but the difference was just too drastic. At 10 month old, Maxwell had never reached to grab a toy. In fact, he had never even used his hands.
Thinking that perhaps Maxwell couldn't see well, Freed took him to an ophthalmologist who was the first to confirm her worst fears. He didn't find Maxwell to have vision problems, but he thought there was something wrong with the boy's brain. He had seen similar cases before and they always turned out to be rare disorders, and always fatal. "Start preparing yourself for your child not to live," he had said.
Getting the diagnosis took months of painful, invasive procedures, as well as fighting with the health insurance to get the genetic testing approved. Finally, in June 2018, doctors at the Children's Hospital Colorado gave the Freeds their son's diagnosis—a genetic mutation so rare it didn't even have a name, just a bunch of letters jammed together into a word SLC6A1—same as the name of the mutated gene. The mutation, with only 40 cases known worldwide at the time, caused developmental disabilities, movement and speech disorders, and a debilitating form of epilepsy.
The doctors didn't know much about the disorder, but they said that Maxwell would also regress in his development when he turned three or four. They couldn't tell how long he would live. "Hopefully you would become an expert and educate us about it," they said, as they gave Freed a five-page paper on the SLC6A1 and told her to start calling scientists if she wanted to help her son in any way. When she Googled the name, nothing came up. She felt horrified. "Our disease was too rare to care."
Freed's husband, a 6'2'' college football player broke down in sobs and she realized that if anything could be done to help Maxwell, she'd have be the one to do it. "I understood that I had to fight like a mother," she says. "And a determined mother can do a lot of things."
The Freed family.
Courtesy Amber Freed
She quit her job as an equity analyst the day of the diagnosis and became a full-time SLC6A1 citizen scientist looking for researchers studying mutations of this gene. In the wee hours of the morning, she called scientists in Europe. As the day progressed, she called researchers on the East Coast, followed by the West in the afternoon. In the evening, she switched to Asia and Australia. She asked them the same question. "Can you help explain my gene and how do we fix it?"
Scientists need money to do research, so Freed launched Milestones for Maxwell fundraising campaign, and a SLC6A1 Connect patient advocacy nonprofit, dedicated to improving the lives of children and families battling this rare condition. And then it became clear that the mutation wasn't as rare as it seemed. As other parents began to discover her nonprofit, the number of known cases rose from 40 to 100, and later to 400, Freed says. "The disease is only rare until it messes with the wrong mother."
It took one mother to find another to start looking into what's happening inside Maxwell's brain. Freed came across Jeanne Paz, a Gladstone Institutes researcher who studies epilepsy with particular interest in absence or silent seizures—those that don't manifest by convulsions, but rather make patients absently stare into space—and that's one type of seizures Maxwell has. "It's like a brief period of silence in the brain during which the person doesn't pay attention to what's happening, and as soon as they come out of the seizure they are back to life," Paz explains. "It's like a pause button on consciousness." She was working to understand the underlying biology.
To understand how seizures begin, spread and stop, Paz uses optogenetics in mice. From words "genetic" and "optikós," which means visible in Greek, the optogenetics technique involves two steps. First, scientists introduce a light-sensitive gene into a specific brain cell type—for example into excitatory neurons that release glutamate, a neurotransmitter, which activates other cells in the brain. Then they implant a very thin optical fiber into the brain area where they forged these light-sensitive neurons. As they shine the light through the optical fiber, researchers can make excitatory neurons to release glutamate—or instead tell them to stop being active and "shut up". The ability to control what these neurons of interest do, quite literally sheds light onto where seizures start, how they propagate and what cells are involved in stopping them.
"Let's say a seizure started and we shine the light that reduces the activity of specific neurons," Paz explains. "If that stops the seizure, we know that activating those cells was necessary to maintain the seizure." Likewise, shutting down their activity will make the seizure stop.
Freed reached out to Paz in 2019 and the two women had an instant connection. They were both passionate about brain and seizures research, even if for different reasons. Freed asked Paz if she would study her son's seizures and Paz agreed.
To do that, Paz needed mice that carried the SLC6A1 mutation, so Freed found a company in China that created them to specs. The company replaced a mouse SLC6A1 gene with a human mutated one and shipped them over to Paz's lab. "We call them Maxwell mice," Paz says, "and we are now implanting electrodes into them to see which brain regions generate seizures." That would help them understand what goes wrong and what brain cells are malfunctioning in the SLC6A1 mice—and help scientists better understand what might cause seizures in children.
Bred to carry SLC6A1 mutation, these "Maxwell mice" will help better understand this debilitating genetic disease. (These mice are from Vanderbilt University, where researchers are also studying SLC6A1.)
Courtesy Amber Freed
This information—along with other research Amber is funding in other institutions—will inform the development of a novel genetic treatment, in which scientists would deploy a harmless virus to deliver a healthy, working copy of the SLC6A1 gene into the mice brains. They would likely deliver the therapeutic via a spinal tap infusion, and if it works and doesn't produce side effects in mice, the human trials will follow.
In the meantime, Freed is raising money to fund other research of various stop-gap measures. On April 22, 2021, she updated her Milestone for Maxwell page with a post that her nonprofit is funding yet another effort. It is a trial at Weill Cornell Medicine in New York City, in which doctors will use an already FDA-approved drug, which was recently repurposed for the SLC6A1 condition to treat epilepsy in these children. "It will buy us time," Freed says—while the gene therapy effort progresses.
Freed is determined to beat SLC6A1 before it beats down her family. She hopes to put an end to this disease—and similar genetic diseases—once and for all. Her goal is not only to have scientists create a remedy, but also to add the mutation to a newborn screening panel. That way, children born with this condition in the future would receive gene therapy before they even leave the hospital.
"I don't want there to be another Maxwell Freed," she says, "and that's why I am fighting like a mother." The gene therapy trial still might be a few years away, but the Weill Cornell one aims to launch very soon—possibly around Mother's Day. This is yet another milestone for Maxwell, another baby step forward—and the best gift a mother can get.
This virtual event will convene leading scientific and medical experts to discuss the most pressing questions around the COVID-19 vaccines for children and teens. A public Q&A will follow the expert discussion.
Thursday, May 13th, 2021
12:30 p.m. - 1:45 p.m. EDT
Virtual on Zoom
You can submit a question for the speakers upon registering.
Dr. H. Dele Davies, M.D., MHCM
Senior Vice Chancellor for Academic Affairs and Dean for Graduate Studies at the University of Nebraska Medical (UNMC). He is an internationally recognized expert in pediatric infectious diseases and a leader in community health.
Dr. Emily Oster, Ph.D.
Professor of Economics at Brown University. She is a best-selling author and parenting guru who has pioneered a method of assessing school safety.
Dr. Tina Q. Tan, M.D.
Professor of Pediatrics at the Feinberg School of Medicine, Northwestern University. She has been involved in several vaccine survey studies that examine the awareness, acceptance, barriers and utilization of recommended preventative vaccines.
Dr. Inci Yildirim, M.D., Ph.D., M.Sc.
Associate Professor of Pediatrics (Infectious Disease); Medical Director, Transplant Infectious Diseases at Yale School of Medicine; Associate Professor of Global Health, Yale Institute for Global Health. She is an investigator for the multi-institutional COVID-19 Prevention Network's (CoVPN) Moderna mRNA-1273 clinical trial for children 6 months to 12 years of age.
About the Event Series
This event is the second of a four-part series co-hosted by Leaps.org, the Aspen Institute Science & Society Program, and the Sabin–Aspen Vaccine Science & Policy Group, with generous support from the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation and the Howard Hughes Medical Institute.