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NEXT: Biology Will be the Next Tech Revolution

David Staley David Staley NEXT: Biology Will be the Next Tech RevolutionImage from video by McGovern Institute for Brain Research at MIT.
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Layla Richards had an incurable form of leukemia, and doctors informed her parents on her first birthday that she would soon be dead. With nothing else to lose, her parents agreed to an aggressive form of gene therapy used previously only on mice. Layla was given a vial of genetically-engineered immune cells that targeted her cancer. Layla now appears to be cancer free, and many observers are saying that the techniques like those used to produce the immune cells for Layla are placing us on the cusp of a revolution in medicine, in bioengineering, in the design of the very stuff of life.

If you have not yet heard of CRISPR, you soon will hear of nothing but CRISPR. In the 1970s, computer terminology would only have been of interest to a few engineers and nerdy enthusiasts. But I don’t have to tell you today about how big a business digital technology is, and how once arcane subjects like computer coding are now the stuff of IPOs and start-up businesses and disruptive innovation. In the near future, we will be talking about companies like Caribou, Crispr Theraputics and Editas Medicine in the way we talk today about Microsoft, Intel, and Google.

Those start-ups employ a gene editing procedure called CRISPR-Cas9 that will have effects on everything from the treatment of diseases to the manufacture of drought resistant crops. Some researchers — and many ethicists — are also warning that gene editing tools have the potential to create evolutionary-scale changes to entire species. Imagine: not only might we cure more Laylas but we might even have the ability to ensure that no future Laylas even have the possibility of acquiring leukemia.

Gene editing means altering genes such that we can either eliminate faults and imperfections that might lead to disease or other pathologies, or to insert or otherwise alter genes to produce attributes that we wish them to possess. Other gene editing techniques exist, but CRISPR-Cas9 is by far the easiest (relatively speaking) and most precise tool yet developed. Without getting too technical, CRISPR-Cas9 is a technique that allows scientists to isolate the segment of genes they want to alter, then uses the Cas9 protein as a kind of “cutting tool” or scalpel to remove the section we want. The technique then inserts the desired gene sequence. It has been somewhat whimsically called a kind of “find-and-replace” for genes.

Some scientists and ethicists are warning that the ability to find-and-replace genes, were it applied to human embryos, would open up a host of problematic issues. I can’t think of anyone who would argue against the idea of eliminating malaria or of wiping out Huntington’s disease if it were within our power to do so. But some are (rightfully) worried about our abilities to alter genes such that the resulting changes cascade throughout an entire population, and for successive generations. One, we don’t know what downstream effects the editing we conduct today might have on future generations. Two, it does not take an over-active imagination to envision some nefarious group seeking to wipe out so-called “undesirable” traits from the population. The possibilities for a new kind of eugenics movement are too hideous to contemplate. No one has the ability as of yet to “design humans,” but it is more in the realm of possibility than it was even five years ago.

More prosaically, I could see big insurance firms getting into the act. If scientists determine that a particular gene can be so edited and repaired to prevent disease, then I can see such procedures becoming mandatory or required as a condition for receiving certain kinds of insurance. That, more than a neo-eugenics movement, seems a more plausible near-term future scenario to me.

When we say “tech worker” or “tech entrepreneur” today, we usually mean someone who has developed an app or a new smart phone or who works with digital technology. Ten years from now, a tech worker will be someone who is trained in biology and who develops genetically-modified apps, someone who works with genetic technology.

David Staley is president of Columbus Futurists and an associate professor of history and design at The Ohio State University. 

The next Columbus Futurists monthly forum will be Thursday November 19 at 6:30 PM at the Panera Bread community room (875 Bethel Road).

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