Genetically engineering superhumans

20 November 2018

Interview with

Sarion Bowers, Wellcome Sanger Institute

What about changing our very being, by modifying our DNA. Once the stuff of sci-fi, now a matter of getting the right equipment, but what is possible and what isn’t, and where do we draw the line! Chris Smith and Georgia Mills were joined by Sarion Bowers, Policy Lead at the Wellcome Sanger Institute...

[Clip of someone injecting a CRISPR gene-editing construct into themselves]

Sarion - This is a man who decided to inject himself with CRISPR, which is this genome editing tool, in order to enhance his muscle function. I think it was pretty much a bit of a gimmick to be honest but it certainly attracted some attention and I think it really effectively demonstrated how easy it is to do this technology or use this technology yourself.

Chris - And what actually is the technology and how does it work?

Sarion - CRISPR is, it's actually a bacterial system. It's the latest in a long line of genome editing tools. Scientists have been able to change the DNA of organisms for many years really since the 70s. But this discovery of this bacterial system has really sort of been a game changer. So it allows scientists to very very accurately target a gene, make the change very precisely and it's really easy to use as well.

Chris - Is it reliable? Does it go wrong?

Sarion - It is reliable but it also does go wrong, so there is a big discussion about off target effects. So when you're supposed to be targeting gene a, how many times it accidentally hits another gene. And that seems to vary depending on what exactly it is you're trying to do.

Chris - So what could we do with it?

Sarion - The options are sort of almost limitless but scientists at the moment are really interested in treating disease. So we've already had some patients that have had this done to them so there was Layla who had was a 11 month old baby who had leukemia who, this actually sort of precursor to CRISPR, but it was very much the same idea and they treated her leukemia with that. She's still in remission which is great. We've also had some patients who were actually edited to be more resistant to the HIV infection that they had.

Chris - Now we've discussed diseases and fixing those. But this program is very much about how we could enhance what we've got already, so started with the healthy state and making it better. So how might this technology be employed to do that?

Sarion - Well we've obviously already seen someone trying to enhance their muscles. In theory there are all sorts of things so intelligence and cognitive ability so that potentially is an area where people are interested. There's obviously super-strength. There is a lot of sort of fantasy speculation out there about what you can do. I think probably a little bit still very much fantasy.

Georgia - Because it’s tricky isn't it, because something like a single gene trait, that I can see in theory how you could change it, but intelligence and things like height, as far as I'm aware there's a massive massive interaction between loads of different genes that we don’t even really understand yet, so do you think we'll ever be able to sort of boost intelligence?

Sarion - On the intelligence point, I think it depends what you mean. So there was this recent article about IQ and the ability to identify the genes involved in IQ and effectively predict someone's IQ and therefore do screening of embryos. IQ is not a particularly great measurement of anything very much. Donald Trump claims to have an IQ of 160. That doesn't necessarily say very much. So I think yes you can make changes, but whether it's actually the change you really want is probably very much open to debate. You are absolutely right about this complexity in the genetic networks. You mentioned height for example, I mean height not only does it have a genetic component because it has an environmental component as well. So these are really complex systems that were talking about.

Georgia - And say the science does get there and you can have your wish list for either yourself or perhaps your kids. What about the ethics? What do you think will be allowed and what won't be?

Sarion - Currently it is completely illegal to edit embryos for reproductive purposes. And that's across Europe and much of the world has that kind of legislation as well and it's certainly the case in the UK. It may be considered ethical in future I think to do that kind of editing.

Chris - Is not one exception to this mitochondrial editing because when a person has a mitochondrial disease we know that's a genetic condition and there are now techniques which are being used a bit like CRISPR to alter the mitochondria that are in those affected cells so that they don't carry that particular abnormality.

Sarion - With mitochondrial disorder you're not actually editing, you’re completely replacing the mitochondria with healthy mitochondria and this is legal in the UK and the first treatments have just been licensed for it and it is a very very specific use case. So there is a very small number of people who will benefit from this technology and the case is very obvious for those people and I think most people feel very sympathetic towards that and so it is ethical. In terms of enhancement, I think Kevin actually raises quite an interesting discussion and I think there is going to be an ongoing debate about what is acceptable and what's not.

Georgia - Earlier in the program we mentioned Spiderman, so he was bitten by a radioactive spider and had all the powers of a spider and a man, so could you take a gene from an animal and put it in a human?

Sarion - So that's probably not that easy to do. There have been a few examples, not in humans I have to say, but you sort of occasionally see these stories, so there was one a while ago about fluorescent cats where they put this green fluorescent protein from jellyfish into cats. It was a proof of principle study really and there is a scientific use for that kind of technology. Although glowing kittens is probably not the actual output that you want. In terms of humans, I think it's going to be a little bit more complicated than that. I think there are many men out there who would like to look like Tobey Maguire. I don't think we're going to get there just yet and they're certainly not going to be swinging from building to building

Georgia - They’d probably be more Jeff Goldblum from the fly, wouldn’t it?

Chris - Do you think there's also a risk with this? We don't know what sits in the gene pool, because there may well be traits in the gene pool that at face value look initially disadvantageous but then when considered in other circumstances may carry a benefit. And I’m thinking for instance the cystic fibrosis gene, we now understand that carriers of that are at lower risk of catching diseases like typhoid and if we were to screen out everybody who is a carrier of cystic fibrosis we would potentially not have that resistance against typhoid. It’s one example and I mean there are many, but is that not a danger if we go thinking ‘well we want all these traits’ actually we may be losing some very important ones?

Sarion - I think that's absolutely right. Genes and genetics are a very complicated network and so while we can identify one gene as having an impact on something. If you start changing it, it may have downstream effects that we aren’t currently aware of and so I think while there will be some cases where the trade-off is worth it, in terms of enhancement, I think its always going to be too complicated for that, you’re always going to have these side effects that you don’t particularly want.

Georgia - And we started with a clip of that person injecting themselves with CRISPR, maybe not the best idea they ever had! Kevin I’d like to bring you back in here because you experimented on yourself essentially. Were you nervous about that? How did you feel about trying something out for the first time on your own body?

Kevin - Well I think it’s quite dangerous and one of the reasons for trying it on myself was in case something went wrong. If it goes right of course people say everyone knew you’d be able to do this, if it goes wrong people say what an idiot getting it wrong like that. But also I wanted to experience it for myself,  that was important as well.

Chris - Are you comfortable with this Barbara?

Barbara - Well it's always a worry when people are experimenting on themselves. I mean obviously Kevin took the procedure to go through ethics and so forth but a lot of people who are essentially putting themselves online doing these things don’t go through those sorts of procedures. And also I mean I find you know with people for instance buying these cognitive enhancing or smart drugs or buying them over the Internet you really don’t know what you’re buying. It could be anything.

Chris - Sage advice but the reason I ask you that is because people are using these drugs. That’s because they regard them as pretty much de rigueur. Once things start to become like Kevin's doing a bit more de rigueur people will just end up doing that too won’t they? So people will end up with  mental implants, drug implants, some will be doing CRISPR in our spare time?

Barbara - I’m all for safe enhancement. But on the other hand as we discussed one also wants to look at where the drivers are for society. I mean if it's you know a lot of philosophers and people like Kevin want to self-enhance themselves to see where their limits are and to carry on scientific experiments. And some people like John Harris at Manchester thinks that we should all be enhancing ourselves because it's our duty for the next generation that we try to do the best we can and we make new inventions and we make the place a better world.

But I think that there are some great ways that are just safer and perhaps more traditional like exercise that is incredibly good for you and people sort of override that in terms of just a quick fix with a pill.

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