2014: The Year Gene Editing Shocks the World

By Ray Blanco Mar 20, 2014, 9:30 AM 

One technology that’s really advanced a lot over the past few decades is gene editing. In labs, researchers can go in and they can basically rewrite the code of life, the genome encoded on the DNA molecule.

We’re going to find that 2014 is the year of shocking news in gene editing.

It’s possible that 2014 is the year that the first designer baby will be born.

Or at least, it will be the first time we hear about it, where parents go in and basically want to give their baby a certain genetic profile, and they go in and do it while it’s still in the embryonic state, trying to play God.

The new future drug that might save your life could very well owe its existence to gene editing technology’s help.

Another thing that I think could happen in 2014 — we’ve got the 2016 Olympics in Rio coming up, and athletes are always looking for any kind of edge they can get. As we know, they get tested for steroids.

But what if you could go in and edit the cells in your body, the genes in those cells, and give yourself a bit more strength, a little bit more endurance, a little bit more speed. It’s awfully tempting in that highly competitive athletic world, and it doesn’t show up on a steroid test.

There are more legitimate medical uses for gene-editing technology.

If we can go in and edit genes, it means we can cure genetic diseases that we inherit from our parents. We can also perhaps edit genes that give us resistance to infectious disease.

The basic concept isn’t actually new, even if the technology is… We started editing genes over 10,000 years ago with selective breeding.

Some wolves with slightly different hormones found that befriending early humans was a great way to share in their bounty, survive and produce more offspring. Over time, we selected certain kinds of dogs to act as shepherds which protected the livestock we were also selectively breeding. We applied similar methods to different crops, and for the first time in human history, we had had surpluses of stuff…

Much more recently, we’ve gone in on the genetic level to improve crops, thus beginning to realize a dream of Green Revolution hero and Nobel Prize winner Norman Borlaug.

Why do I call him a hero? His work on developing new crop varieties and growing methods, along with transferring that technology to other parts of the world where people go hungry, has saved countless lives.

Borlaug, through his work, probably saved more human lives than anyone in history. Some estimates put it at a billion lives. It’s a shame more people don’t know his name.

We’ve also been gene editing in the lab in all kinds of organisms. A lot of biomedical research wouldn’t be possible without gene editing technology.

We modify genes to study diseases in animals and use those data to gain knowledge so that we can treat the diseases in humans.

One good example is the so-called “Swedish mutation” that was first identified in the ’90s by Michael Mullan and Fiona Crawford.

Humans with this mutation have a greatly increased likelihood of developing Alzheimer’s disease.

We’ve since created mice with this genetic mutation, and they now form the research backbone to conquering the disease.

Mullan’s and Crawford’s work on this problem continues a few miles away from where I write this. But this is just a single example.

The new future drug that might save your life could very well owe its existence to gene editing technology’s help.

But what about human disease itself? We know that a lot of disease has a genetic cause. But to date, we’ve been limited to treating the symptoms of so-called bad genes. We fiddle along the edges, but the core problem remains.

A good example is how researchers are working to modify the way a bad gene is expressed in order to treat a severe form of muscular dystrophy. If they’re successful, children who would otherwise be doomed to die by the age of 30 may be able to live much longer, happier and healthier lives.

It would be even better, however, if we could just reach into a cell with tiny fingers and rewrite the bit of code that needs it. It would also be great if it worked in adults as well.

A new paper in The New England Journal of Medicine hints at being able to do exactly that. The idea is to use gene editing to cure HIV.

It’s only early March, but two big human gene editing stories have made headlines. We’ll have to wait and see what the rest of 2014 has in store.

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