Monday, July 28, 2014

Human Genome Editing A breakthrough toward curing AIDS, depression…and augmenting normal humans?

The current issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences reports that an approach to human genome editing, a gene therapy, may "provide a viable path toward a permanent cure for AIDS and a means to vaccinate against other pathogenic viruses.”

My article today explores the issues likely to derive as gene therapy becomes more of a reality. HERE is the link.


Maria Lopez said...

This particular therapy is designed to edit out undesirable information. While I think that genetic therapies are becoming more targeted, this alone won't allow adding extra genes or substituting a different protein than the one an organism is currently making.

It is also unclear that it could reach all the cells in a living body.

The best targets for gene therapy appear to be diseases where only a few cells need to be transformed in order to make a difference to the organism.

It is deeply unclear to me enhancing normal people through gene therapy could be done in a cost effective fashion. Consider that Google is nearly as good as enhanced memory for a lot of things and that if you need to do physical things that you are not strong enough to do you usually use a simple or complex machine, rather than taking anabolic steroids to improve your strength.

I also don't think creation of a genetically enhanced master race is something we should fear. It is possible that people with better memory, superior physical strength, or more aerobic capacity could be created but since we don't know of genes for overwhelming superpowers we could not engineer those.

What I would be afraid of is not the creation of supermen but the creation of human "cats." By this I don't mean the creation of literal cat people, but the creation of beings that, like cats, are very good in a few specific areas but are not as adaptable as normal humans.

Another problem with genetic engineering of humans is the creation of human prototypes. These would be people with untested genetic augmentations. Such people would, at least occasionally end up crippled by side effects of the augmentation that didn't show in mice or in tissue cultures. While DNA editing might remove the augmentation, the side effects would sometimes remain. For example, if something destroys my pancreas and some treatment stops it, I would remain diabetic even though the destructive process has ceased.

For a good example of a procedure with similar costs and benefits to genetic enhancements, consider LASIK. It is permanent, provides enhanced vision and allows you to free yourself from the inconvenience of glasses and contacts. It also weakens the physical structure of the eye, and can have bad effects on your night vision.

Marty Nemko said...

Maria, it would seem that the two cited discoveries (the other on progress toward gene-by-gene gene therapy) suggests reason for greater optimism. Of course, this is just in the research phase.

Your analogy to Google isn't apt. Alas, Google is only as helpful as your reasoning ability and memory allows. Enhancing normal intelligence would enable a person to use all the information sources of the world---from conversation to Google--more effectively.

Is it clear we should fear creation of what you call "human cats?" We breed dogs specifically, for example, for sheep herding. Yes, there's the eww factor regarding doing it with humans but if one considers it truly from a humanitarian perspective--what would do most good for humankind, is it clear, it's a net negative? Yes, it evokes in me the reflexive "ewww" response but intellectually, I'm, while not in favor yet, am agnostic enough to find it an interesting topic of conversation.

Regarding side effects, yes. I agree all due caution is required. But when the potential positive is so great, we should at least undertake the research, doing everything reasonably possible to ensure safety and lack of side effects. Abandoning research on something so potentially beneficially before you even start, seems a mistake to me.

Maria Lopez said...

The problem with humans genetically engineered to focus on a few abilities is that such people might out reproduce normal people in one environment but be less able to cope with environmental changes. For example, people who are smarter than the current normal but have to eat a restricted diet or take pills to maintain their health.

I'm really nervous about producing many people who have no chance of living in other than an industrial society. People do sometimes lose technological skills due to various disasters.

The Western European dark ages were not the first such period. Even without such extremes, bad things such as wars and disasters happen. Current humans have shown an ability to cope with such things that overzealous genetic engineering might lessen.

Two I'm not sure the positive potential is that great. While intellectual disability is not a good thing, people with much higher than normal IQs, as you mentioned, don't always do interesting things.

There is also the problem discussed in C. S. Lewis' The Abolition of Man and also discussed in B. F. Skinner's Walden Two of deciding who gets to decide who we should be. What would you engineer for if you could?

Marty Nemko said...

I think your concerns, Maria, are so much less likely than the benefits.

And while of course, some smart people don't make the most of it, look at the contributions of people with IQ 130+ vs the pool with less than 90, and it's very clear that, net, the former group abetted humankind much more.

Re who shall decide? Individual prospective parents.

Maria Lopez said...

I think you see genetic engineering as a magic technology. It isn't magic and like a lot of things will have it's costs and it's benefits.

I'm not dismissing intelligence wholesale, I'm just questioning whether more geniuses would be able to have a great a social effect as you imagine.

I also wonder if genetic engineering for intelligence would not be difficult as, according to what I read about the Chinese efforts to understand intelligence, intellectual differences among people without genetic disease are thought to be related to many different genes.

I do think that genetic engineering of people may occur but that it will be more interesting in its effects than anybody can anticipate. I also think assumptions that society as a whole can decide world wide whether or not to do it are mistaken. If we can't decide without bloodshed what territory belongs to the Ukraine, how can we decide something that would occur in a much more decentralized fashion.

I suspect the biggest obstacle to genetically engineering people won't be the eeeww factor but instead the story of a woman who gives birth to a genetically engineered child and finds out it has a significant disability. The disability may not even be caused by the genetic manipulation, but the story would have a great emotional effect on people.