Can I change my DNA?

05 December 2017

Question

Can I change my DNA? 

Answer

Chris put this question from Katie to Patrick Short, a geneticist from the University of Cambridge. 

Patrick - Ten years ago the answer probably would have been absolutely not, but in the last five years or so there’s been an amazing revolution in genome editing technology. Just a month or two ago, the first FDA drug was approved to treat a pretty rare form of blood cancer. And the way that it works is actually by taking blood out of the patient, editing the DNA of the immune cells so that they would target the cancer specifically and then putting them back into the patient to target it.

There’s also other great examples like Muscular Dystrophy for instance. People have a genetic disease that causes their muscles to not develop properly, and there are therapies now that have already worked in animals and they’re starting to test them out on humans to actually go in and fix the mutation in the muscles, so it’s certainly possible.

Chris - Would you do this at the moment though because there’s been a lot of fanfare about the whole idea of going in and re-writing bits of DNA? But, in the examples you’ve given, one of them Chimera, the drug that Novartis have this year got licenced, that involves taking cells out of the body and changing them so that you know that when you put the cells back into the body you’ve got a reasonable degree of confidence that you’ve done something right and you’re not introducing something you shouldn’t. In the case of muscular dystrophy, the treatments there are a temporary, like sticking plaster, they’re not physically re-writing that person’s DNA are they?

But now we’ve got tools being developed in the laboratory, things like CRISPR, where people could physically go into your body and reprogramme the DNA in your cells which is I think a bit different than the two examples you’ve discussed.

Patrick - Yeah. I definitely wouldn’t try it at home and there are some people on the internet who will talk about biohacking and editing your own DNA . It’s certainly not safe and it probably doesn‘t  do anything at this point.

Chris - Someone sent me a video to look at that she’s making a documentary. She may have released it now but was a chap who literally was doing this gene editing on himself, at home in California, and I was quite shocked to be honest. He was just injecting himself with this thing and there you go, “I am rewriting my DNA in my muscles”. It sounds terrifying dangerous?

Patrick - Yeah. And it think it’s pretty much snake oil. I think the most likely thing that’s going to happen to him is he’ll accidentally hurt himself. You have billions of cells in your body and you’ve got to go in, if you want to change the DNA in all of them, you’ve got to have some way to deliver this CRISPR enzyme to every cell in your body. I think the more likely thing is that we’ll actually start editing embryos, so families that want to make sure their child doesn’t have a severe disease will use this technology to go in an edit it when it’s just a couple of cells, and not when you’re already a full blown organism.

Chris - Phil?

Phillip - Presumably it’s much easier to do that when you’ve got a couple of cells to change and then it get’s carried through as the thing develops, right?

Patrick - Yeah, absolutely. It’s a little bit of a difficult subject to research because it’s ethically difficult to get access to live embryos. But there are some with severe genetic diseases that labs are working on to actually see if they can correct it so you might be able to have a successful pregnancy after correcting the Beta thalassemia of one of these diseases.

Chris - So just to summarise then: the bottom line is we can change DNA, people probably are changing DNA, and there are circumstances where it’s appropriate to do so. But, at this stage, it’s very early in the process, it’s probably a step too far because you may well do yourself harm, and it’s probably better not to do this except in the right circumstances, which is a reasonable summary.

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