[Editor's Note: This essay is in response to our current Big Question, which we posed to experts with different perspectives: "How should DNA tests for intelligence be used, if at all, by parents and educators?"]
Imagine a world in which pregnant women could go to the doctor and obtain a simple inexpensive genetic test of their unborn child that would allow them to predict how tall he or she would eventually be. The test might also tell them the child's risk for high blood pressure or heart disease.
Can we use DNA not to understand, but to predict who is going to be intelligent or extraverted or mentally ill?
Even more remarkable -- and more dangerous -- the test might predict how intelligent the child would be, or how far he or she could be expected to go in school. Or heading further out, it might predict whether he or she will be an alcoholic or a teetotaler, or straight or gay, or… you get the idea. Is this really possible? If it is, would it be a good idea? Answering these questions requires some background in a scientific field called behavior genetics.
Differences in human behavior -- intelligence, personality, mental illness, pretty much everything -- are related to genetic differences among people. Scientists have known this for 150 years, ever since Darwin's half-cousin Francis Galton first applied Shakespeare's phrase, "Nature and Nurture" to the scientific investigation of human differences. We knew about the heritability of behavior before Mendel's laws of genetics had been re-discovered at the end of the last century, and long before the structure of DNA was discovered in the 1950s. How could discoveries about genetics be made before a science of genetics even existed?
The answer is that scientists developed clever research designs that allowed them to make inferences about genetics in the absence of biological knowledge about DNA. The best-known is the twin study: identical twins are essentially clones, sharing 100 percent of their DNA, while fraternal twins are essentially siblings, sharing half. To the extent that identical twins are more similar for some trait than fraternal twins, one can infer that heredity is playing a role. Adoption studies are even more straightforward. Is the personality of an adopted child more like the biological parents she has never seen, or the adoptive parents who raised her?
Twin and adoption studies played an important role in establishing beyond any reasonable doubt that genetic differences play a role in the development of differences in behavior, but they told us very little about how the genetics of behavior actually worked. When the human genome was finally sequenced in the early 2000s, and it became easier and cheaper to obtain actual DNA from large samples of people, scientists anticipated that we would soon find the genes for intelligence, mental illness, and all the other behaviors that were known to be "heritable" in a general way.
But to everyone's amazement, the genes weren't there. It turned out that there are thousands of genes related to any given behavior, so many that they can't be counted, and each one of them has such a tiny effect that it can't be tied to meaningful biological processes. The whole scientific enterprise of understanding the genetics of behavior seemed ready to collapse, until it was rescued -- sort of -- by a new method called polygenic scores, PGS for short. Polygenic scores abandon the old task of finding the genes for complex human behavior, replacing it with black-box prediction: can we use DNA not to understand, but to predict who is going to be intelligent or extraverted or mentally ill?
Prediction from observing parents works better, and is far easier and cheaper, than anything we can do with DNA.
PGS are the shiny new toy of human genetics. From a technological standpoint they are truly amazing, and they are useful for some scientific applications that don't involve making decisions about individual people. We can obtain DNA from thousands of people, estimate the tiny relationships between individual bits of DNA and any outcome we want — height or weight or cardiac disease or IQ — and then add all those tiny effects together into a single bell-shaped score that can predict the outcome of interest. In theory, we could do this from the moment of conception.
Polygenic scores for height already work pretty well. Physicians are debating whether the PGS for heart disease are robust enough to be used in the clinic. For some behavioral traits-- the most data exist for educational attainment -- they work well enough to be scientifically interesting, if not practically useful. For traits like personality or sexual orientation, the prediction is statistically significant but nowhere close to practically meaningful. No one knows how much better any of these predictions are likely to get.
Without a doubt, PGS are an amazing feat of genomic technology, but the task they accomplish is something scientists have been able to do for a long time, and in fact it is something that our grandparents could have done pretty well. PGS are basically a new way to predict a trait in an individual by using the same trait in the individual's parents — a way of observing that the acorn doesn't fall far from the tree.
The children of tall people tend to be tall. Children of excellent athletes are athletic; children of smart people are smart; children of people with heart disease are at risk, themselves. Not every time, of course, but that is how imperfect prediction works: children of tall parents vary in their height like anyone else, but on average they are taller than the rest of us. Prediction from observing parents works better, and is far easier and cheaper, than anything we can do with DNA.
But wait a minute. Prediction from parents isn't strictly genetic. Smart parents not only pass on their genes to their kids, but they also raise them. Smart families are privileged in thousands of ways — they make more money and can send their kids to better schools. The same is true for PGS.
The ability of a genetic score to predict educational attainment depends not only on examining the relationship between certain genes and how far people go in school, but also on every personal and social characteristic that helps or hinders education: wealth, status, discrimination, you name it. The bottom line is that for any kind of prediction of human behavior, separation of genetic from environmental prediction is very difficult; ultimately it isn't possible.
Still, experts are already discussing how to use PGS to make predictions for children, and even for embryos.
This is a reminder that we really have no idea why either parents or PGS predict as well or as poorly as they do. It is easy to imagine that a PGS for educational attainment works because it is summarizing genes that code for efficient neurological development, bigger brains, and swifter problem solving, but we really don't know that. PGS could work because they are associated with being rich, or being motivated, or having light skin. It's the same for predicting from parents. We just don't know.
Still, experts are already discussing how to use PGS to make predictions for children, and even for embryos.
For example, maybe couples could fertilize multiple embryos in vitro, test their DNA, and select the one with the "best" PGS on some trait. This would be a bad idea for a lot of reasons. Such scores aren't effective enough to be very useful to parents, and to the extent they are effective, it is very difficult to know what other traits might be selected for when parents try to prioritize intelligence or attractiveness. People will no doubt try it anyway, and as a matter of reproductive freedom I can't think of any way to stop them. Fortunately, the practice probably won't have any great impact one way or another.
That brings us to the ethics of PGS, particularly in the schools. Imagine that when a child enrolls in a public school, an IQ test is given to her biological parents. Children with low-IQ parents are statistically more likely to have low IQs themselves, so they could be assigned to less demanding classrooms or vocational programs. Hopefully we agree that this would be unethical, but let's think through why.
First of all, it would be unethical because we don't know why the parents have low IQs, or why their IQs predict their children's. The parents could be from a marginalized ethnic group, recognizable by their skin color and passed on genetically to their children, so discriminating based on a parent's IQ would just be a proxy for discriminating based on skin color. Such a system would be no more than a social scientific gloss on an old-fashioned program for perpetuating economic and cognitive privilege via the educational system.
People deserve to be judged on the basis of their own behavior, not a genetic test.
Assigning children to classrooms based on genetic testing would be no different, although it would have the slight ethical advantage of being less effective. The PGS for educational attainment could reflect brain-efficiency, but it could also depend on skin color, or economic advantage, or personality, or literally anything that is related in any way to economic success. Privileging kids with higher genetic scores would be no different than privileging children with smart parents. If schools really believe that a psychological trait like IQ is important for school placement, the sensible thing is to administer the children an actual IQ test – not a genetic test.
IQ testing has its own issues, of course, but at least it involves making decisions about individuals based on their own observable characteristics, rather than on characteristics of their parents or their genome. If decisions must be made, if resources must be apportioned, people deserve to be judged on the basis of their own behavior, the content of their character. Since it can't be denied that people differ in all sorts of relevant ways, this is what it means for all people to be created equal.
[Editor's Note: Read another perspective in the series here.]
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.