In Matthew Hutson’s contribution to Medium’s “Future Human” series, he interviews George Church. Church, the Harvard geneticist, molecular engineer, and chemist has been hugely influential in the understanding of DNA. His Harvard PhD included the first methods for direct genome sequencing, molecular multiplexing & barcoding. He developed PersonalGenomes.org, as a globe spanning project focused on making the information he had discovered on genomes accessible to all genome owners and operators.
Church has spent a career developing a world in which all problems can be fixed. If your DNA is a little wonky, Church can put it straight. If there’s something wrong with your organ, Church is working to find a way to fix that too. As a consequence George Church has also come under criticism for having acute megalomania with a side of God complex.
In the following article he ruminates on extending life, gene therapy, transplanting organs from pigs into primates, and his ultimate assessment on hope for humanity.
Forever Young: How Do We Extend Life?
Church insists that there is no sorcerer’s stone, no single magical solution to living longer or living forever. But that it may be possible that an accumulation of stones, a multi-step solution involving a combination of techniques and treatments that elongate life is probably not impossible. Church breaks down this solution as followed:
“A key factor in extending the life is the reduction of inflammation.”
This can be achieved by administering anti-inflammatory proteins throughout the body.
Did you know that genes can delivered intravenously? Because I didn’t.
So gene therapy essentially works by replacing a particular missing or damaged protein with either a healthy protein or the gene that codes for a healthy protein.
“There are about 2,000 gene therapies in clinical trials.”
A good example of how genes perform in the renovation of a mutation would be a condition called leber congenital amaurosis, or LCA. A gene called RPE65 produces proteins in the retina. Mutations in this gene lead to LCA, where the retina incrementally breaks down, causing loss of vision.
Through the use of gene therapy, the mutations within the retina can be replaced with functional genes, effectively curing LCA.
Besides fixing detrimental mutations, genes and proteins that are mutated in beneficial ways can theoretically be isolated and adopted into their own therapy. For instance, some people who have had high exposure to HIV will continuously come up negative when tested for the virus. The specific gene or protein that causes this aversion to the HIV virus can be found and adopted as a new gene or protein therapy, unleashing these impervious little buggers into the populous and curing AIDS.
Triumph of the Pig Children:
Another aspect that would increase the human life expectancy would be the replacement of old, worn out organs with new ones. Church has begun trials transplanting the modified organs of pigs into non-human primates. The pig organs are grown to have specific qualities such as being pathogen-resistant, cancer-resistant, or to resist cryopreservation for long-term storage. Therein lies a faction of Church’s work that garners a significant amount of criticism.
“Even though it’s hard to come up with a strong argument for enhancing a healthy human being, a lot can be said for enhancing an organ that’s going into an unhealthy human being, because you want that organ to be as good as it can be.”
We’re All in This Together:
Besides his work deconstructing the nuts and bolts of the aging process, Church also devotes attention towards disassembling the business model of the medical industry.
“I’ve spent a huge fraction of my career trying to bring down the price of technologies.”
The most dramatic of which is DNA sequencing. In the last 14 years, Church’s companies have brought the price of sequencing down to the tune of 10-million.
The idea is that if everyone had accessible DNA sequencing, hundreds of lives and billions of dollars spent every year on infants with advanced genetic disorders could be saved. People who had a full understanding of their genetic makeup would be less likely to produce offspring with someone with the same carrier status. Never mind playing God, it seems Mr. Church has his eye on playing matchmaker.
This Used to be the Future:
Gene therapy, modified organs, universal DNA sequencing, you might think the future looks pretty bright through the perception of George Church. Despite his innovations, Church is apprehensive about the future of mankind.
“what are my odds that the species will make it 100 years? I just have no idea.”