Gene-editing has great potential, but still calls for caution

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Michael Goguen delivers his “Re-Programming Evolution: The Promise and Perils of Gene Editing” at the Arts and Technology Building at Flathead Valley Community College Feb. 20. The talk is part of the college’s “Technology and Humankind” lecture series. (Daniel McKay/Whitefish Pilot)

Modifying genetic code, training the body to better fight disease, even eradicating cancer — these miracles may be less science fiction than they seem.

Michael Goguen, a technologist, venture capitalist and Whitefish resident, spoke on the benefits and concerns surrounding gene editing during his “Re-Programming Evolution: The Promise and Perils of Gene Editing” lecture last week at the Flathead Valley Community College’s Arts and Technology Building.

The lecture was the second of seven in the college’s “Technology and Humankind” 2018 Honors Symposium Lecture Series.

Speaking to a crowd of about 300, Goguen worked through the history of gene editing technologies, leading into the development of the technology now used to make the slightest changes to genetic code.

The system Goguen discussed is the CRISPR-Cas9 system, which “cuts” a cell’s genome at a desired location and allows existing genes to be removed and new ones added.

Jennifer Doudna, a professor and researcher at the University of California-Berkeley, has been a leading figure on gene-editing and helped publish a landmark paper on how CRISPR technology can be used in 2012.

When Goguen first heard about the technology, he said he and others didn’t quite understand all the ramifications.

“When gene editing first started becoming a topic ... all of us were pretty hopeful, and boy we just didn’t know what we were in for, because the gene editing tech that’s happening around the globe at just a viral pace has implications way beyond the positive implications that myself and thousands of others were hoping for — disease treatment,” he said.

Goguen compared the developments to the Greek story of Prometheus, the Titan that stole fire from the gods and gave it to humans.

In this story, Goguen said the power offed by technology like CRISPR is awe inspiring but worrisome.

“We as humankind, life having been on this planet for billions of years — humans only for 60 million or so — for the very first time we have the ability to change the code of our life, of evolution. We can change the code of any living thing. That’s both thrilling and frightening,” he said.

“I don’t know if we’re ready for this or not, but it’s here, so we better be.”

The positive applications for the technology are obvious.

During his presentation, Goguen flipped through slides discussing the many ways CRISPR can better the world.

In agriculture, CRISPR can help develop disease-resistant cacao, false flax seed with enhanced Omega-3 fatty oil production, and make leaner pork and beef, for example.

For environmental applications, the technology could help stop damage done by the Western Bark Beetle, improve bio-fuel production, manage and reverse invasive species populations, bring back populations of endangered species and engineer plants to reduce the effects of pollutants.

Some of the biggest gains can be made in healthcare, however.

Things thought unchangeable can now be changed, Goguen said, such as reversing mutations in hereditary blindness, reversing sickle cell anemia, treating and removing the AIDS virus and Huntington’s disease, and halting and reversing the effects of Alzheimer’s.

“The potential is really limitless,” he said.

There is a downside, of course.

Along with the positive practical applications for the technology, Goguen noted, the variety of ways gene editing can be used maliciously.

Ethical concerns like “playing God” come to mind, as well as the societal impact of parents being able to pay for “designer babies,” in which preferred traits like intelligence, looks and strength are ensured via gene modification.

The ease-of-use factor and the lack of enforceable controls on the technology is a concern too. Right now CRISPR kits can allow anyone to try the technology for just a few hundred dollars, Goguen said, and when used with malicious intent — or simply misused — the consequences could be devastating.

“What if, at the embryo stage, somebody has this $100 gene-editing kit, and they make a change? So if they get it right and they did something wonderful, this embryo was going to have a horrible genetic disease that was just cured and taken out of the whole family tree? I don’t think there will be too much ethical argument about that,” Goguen said. “But what if you made a mistake, or what if it wasn’t a necessary procedure. What if the parent was paying a lot to make sure the baby was intelligent, or had the right physical traits, or was the right color skin? That’s where the ethical arguments really come in.”

For instance, a 2016 national security report listed gene editing as a national security risk due to its power and easy access.

There’s also the unintended consequences that can cause problems.

In one example of the positive applications, Goguen pointed to modifying mosquitoes to no longer carry lethal diseases.

“What scientists started doing is looking at the DNA of mosquitoes, and saying, ‘Gee, I wonder if I can tweak the gene that lets the virus come in ... so that mosquito just couldn’t carry malaria anymore, or dengue fever,’ and the answer was yes,” he said.

“That same study ... [also] had open debates of, ‘Why don’t we just eliminate mosquitoes?’ An entire species could get wiped out very, very quickly.”

So as to where this technology has us heading, Goguen said he’s taking an optimistic view of the future.

“I really think the promise far outweighs the peril, it really does. Plus, the genie’s out of the bottle and we can’t put it back,” he said.

Goguen pointed to a number of developments made just in the past two weeks in gene editing and related fields.

At the University of California-San Francisco, CRISPR edits were used to successfully convert normal cells into embryonic stem cells, and a separate study at Stanford University used stem cells to trigger an immune system response to cancer.

“Here you have one group, saying, ‘Gee, with CRISPR-CAS we can create an indefinite supply in any human of their own embryonic stem cells.’ Then you have another researcher saying, ‘Gee, if only we had embryonic stem cells from a patient, we just proved we can train them to fight their own cancer,’” Goguen said. “That’s the kind of thing I think that’s happening. That’s the reason why I think this technology is worth pursuing.

And for better or worse, the technology is out and here to stay.

“About all we can do, I think, is just accelerate the good applications and be as wary as we can about the more frightening applications,” he said.

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