CL: I’m Christopher Lydon. This is Open Source. Willy-nilly, and ready or not, we are at the gateway into CRISPR world and CRISPR think: CRISPR the acronym for biology’s longest leap. It’s the gene-editing tool that can tweak the inherited DNA code of your being, and mine. We heard this winter about the Chinese doctor who applied CRISPR science to the embryos of twins — to make them HIV proof, he said. After that, the CRISPR story is mostly riddles: is it about curing disease, or adapting the human species, for a back-up planet? Is it about genius in science, or hubris? Is it ripe for investment? Safe for mankind? Is the race over CRISPR between Boston and Berkeley, California? Or between the US and China? It could be all or none of the above, next, on Open Source. First, the news.
Christopher Lydon: I’m Christopher Lydon. This is Open Source. We have tip-toed into the cave of CRISPR this hour, to listen closely on and between the lines to Dr. George Church at the Harvard Medical School. He’s the nearest thing to a voice of CRISPR, the revolutionary science of our time. For courage and professional company, I have Antonio Regalado at my side. He is the relentless beat reporter and bio-science editor at MIT’s Tech Review, and he went with me recently to George Church’s lab. Quick history: CRISPR is Step 3 in a revolution most of us slept through in the science of reproduction: first, 1953, the circular-staircase of a double-helix let us visualize the genetic molecule, DNA; then 2003, fifty years later, the whole map came clear: of DNA’s web in every human cell; now comes the trick of reading, writing and editing that DNA, like a book. No matter that no one’s quite seen or heard the language of it, though Dr. Church is getting closer than anyone else we know. Antonio Regalado has been following him step-by-step:
Antonio Regalado: I’m a follower of George Church’s, so everything he says I listen to. I’m always picking up his breadcrumbs. He’s someone who has so much important to say, and often it’s hard to understand what he means. And I think that’s because he lives in the future and he’s talking about the future — things that aren’t clear to the rest of us.
CL: I was dying to find out. We’ll be talk bio-science bio ethics by a business bio-business, bio-politics. Would we use the word eugenics? Would we talk about commercial science.
AR: I haven’t had that many sit down interviews with George Church. I’m often in the weeds on the technical details and it was interesting to hear him talk about some of these bigger issues and describe himself as the icon of this whole movement.
CL: Give him credit for receiving us, for letting us in.
AR: Right. Well I mean one of the interesting things about George is that he is sort of a highly transparent person. His genome is online. All his commercial connections are listed on his Web site. Every news article that he’s in. And when I showed up he told me, he was like, “Well. You’ve written about me 34 times.”
CL: With Dr. Church the conversation began with that bogeyman who burst into the CRISPR story late last year and then took it over, really. The Chinese doctor Jiang Qi He, now known as “JK,” who’d already modified the embryos of Chinese twins and shocked the world.
CL: The genie is out of the bottle you said about Dr. He.
George Church: Yeah.
CL: Meaning what?
GC: Meaning that no matter what plans we had, as John Lennon would say, something else is happening.
CL: Let me just say Dr. Church the conceit here is that George Church is the man that the gods are watching these days in this part of the world in a way that wowed by Mookie Betts and Tom Brady. But you’re the guy, the public point man of the most consequential science in our time, almost fluent in the coded language of us and with the means to write in the language, rewrite what’s there, change sentences, their meaning, change the human story in DNA for all time. So everything about you compels our attention.
Let’s start with Dr. He, take him as a marker of something new, maybe the CRISPR century.
GC: I’m familiar with his work. I had early access to his data.
CL: What should we be waiting for? Bracing for?
GC: Well we should be — and we are — setting up guidelines for how to go forward, not just for germline but also for somatic gene therapy. Most of these could fall under the normal FDA, AMA guidelines. But we need to make sure that we have criteria established for what if there are any differences and what to do if people don’t follow them, in other words surveillance and so forth. We’re preparing for radical changes in our biology, many of which will happen to do to somatic gene therapy.
CL: Antonio it was your story. It was your scoop in this country.
AR: Chris it’s the biggest story of the 21st century thus far carried out in secrecy against all the recommendations of the scientific community but also in a way a strange case of wish fulfillment — the first genetically modified people.
CL: Push the doctor on what that all means.
AR: Some people have looked at the situation in China and said that JK has been kind of thrown off the bus, but the bus keeps moving. Right? It was advantageous to science in a way to have this happen because it moves past the question of the ethics of doing it or shouldn’t we do it — it’s already happened. You mentioned a process for doing it the right way or guidelines. I was wondering if you saw it, Dr. Church, the same way. I mean is it advantageous to science to the enterprise that this occurred even though it’s been criticized?
Church: It’s hard to evaluate where it’s advantageous. I mean, I was one of the first people to note that we should note that — that it has been done and that we shouldn’t necessarily be throwing them off the bus or under the bus until we’ve evaluated exactly what he did.
CL: I wondered some different questions. (A) China is a sovereign nation of its own; it can make its own rules. (B) a very bright young man with a small lab on his own can do this work. But third, I wondered was he set up almost? To do it with flaws in ways that the world disapproved, but it tosses the ball right back to the American way. “We’ll do it, thank you doctor He.” We’ll do it in a kind of government-funded, maybe, and regulated but with private corporations, patents and profits galore. It’s sort of over to you, George Church. How should we do it? He screwed it up.
Church: Well it’s very hard to stop something that is safe and effective for long periods of time. You can stop them temporarily. I mean there’ve been multiple calls for moratorium and outright bans and things like that. I think those are almost meaningless phrases, in a sense. We already have a moratorium an outright ban not just on CRISPR babies but on every new pharmaceutical because you can’t practice medicine with a new pharmaceutical without having gone through FDA approved clinical trial, or the equivalent thing in other countries.
So that’s a ban; that’s a that’s a ban on everything. What was missing wasn’t the ban; that was already in place. What was missing was the surveillance and the explicit description of consequences to remind people of the ban that is in place for all drugs.
CL How does it affect your work, Dr. Church, but even more your vision in the book Regenesis which I find so fascinating of species barriers falling right and left faster than the Berlin Wall came down in 1989, you write, about a transhumanist future over that horizon.
Church: Well I’ve made the argument that we’re already transhumanist, that is to say, if it’s defined as being almost unrecognizable to our ancestors. I think if you brought some of our ancestors or even people from un-industrialized tribes they would not understand what we’re doing. They would not understand why we’re so fascinated with this little piece of glass and plastic that we check it all day and why we care about making colonies on Mars, you know, which is some dot of light, etc. I mean almost everything we do would be just foreign to them technologically and even socially. So we are transhumanist in so many ways. I think we have a hang up socially about inheritance. So we inherit many things; we inherit our culture, our technology. And it’s very surely inherited. And you can almost guarantee it, while our genetics is not so surely inherited. I mean most people say our kids are completely different from us, right? You know, they might have some things in common but then a lot of things not in common, but boy they use this also same cell phone same model that we’re using that’s much more a guaranteed inheritance. So I think we’ve got this hangup about DNA that isn’t earned by the DNA.
CL: Can I push back. Dare I?
CL: You say we’re already transhuman and yet the one thing we haven’t played with is the reproductive material.
GC: Oh, we have — but go ahead.
CL: Well we —
GC: We do it all the time
CL: We play with it every time a man and woman conceive a child.
GC: Also every time we do chemotherapy, every time we we get irradiated for variety of reasons. The question is this random mutagenesis intrinsically much better than targeted and vetted mutagenesis, and I’m not saying I have a strong opinion, but I’ve given you enough information that you could form your own.
CL: Of course. At the same time, that reproductive core, I would have said, is something we revere. It’s not a hangup about DNA.
GC: We do, we do revere it, I revere it. But I’m just saying we should also revere our cultural inheritance because it is just as reliable in certain circumstances, and it’s just as impactful, and it is in certain cases scarier, because it happens faster, and it spreads further. But if I come up with a way that reduces your probability of cognitive decline, that could spread very quickly throughout the world.
I’m not saying we shouldn’t worry. I’m saying we should worry about more things; we should worry about more things, we should worry about cultural changes that are inherited, to the extent that we’re worrying about the DNA.
CL: For example?
Church: For example coming up with a technological way of preventing cognitive decline. That’s something that could spread through the population and could be used off label for cognitive enhancement. For example vaccines. They make us superhuman; we’re now resistant to 20 things that our ancestors were not resistant to. We just don’t worry about smallpox and polio and so forth. So we make we make these decisions that affect not just us but our great grandchildren without their permission.
AR: George you’re saying, I’ve heard you say before that the CRISPR baby is not the thing to worry about; it moves too slowly.
GC: It is to worry about, but it’s not the only thing to worry about.. There are things to worry about more.
AR: A treatment for cognitive decline. What it what is to worry about there? What is to worry about when biology becomes part of this cultural evolution?
GC: Well you should worry about every new technology because there are unintended consequences. Worry just means plan for. See what you can do to minimize the negatives and maximize the positives. Worry doesn’t mean become depressed and suicidal, it means to talk to everybody. But don’t give preferential worry and attention to things just because they involve DNA, okay.
CL: Before we’re done I want to ask you how you’d tweak George Church you know. I would be willing to tweak almost anything to ward off Alzheimer’s, for me.
CL: Antonio, crumbs I heard started with: we’re facing radical changes in our biology, his phrase; we are already transhuman; DNA is a kind of hangup of old fashioned people.
AR: But I think he is looking forward to a point — and he raised it — where what if it became easy to change your DNA?
AR: It’s getting it’s getting cheaper. It’s certainly cheaper to read the DNA. And he’s working very hard on making it cheaper to write the DNA. That’s one of the big projects in George’s lab is just writing DNA and how to put together DNA strands in the lab or indeed alter them in a mouse or a person. The question is are we going to have a way to alter the DNA inside of people that’s going to be easy, and if we do, what I heard him say is that there’ll be no stopping it. FDA government or whoever; people are going to want to change themselves for the better. A lot of people don’t want this step taken. The step toward designer babies.
CL: Coming up: The shadow of ‘eugenics’ on the impulse to ‘improve’ on the gift of human life. This is Open Source.
CL: I’m Christopher Lydon. This is Open Source, with Antonio Regalado of the Tech Review in a learning conversation with Dr. George Church in his Harvard Medical School lab. He’s the big, bearded face of the genetic revolution, genomic medicine:
CL: Antonio how’s to suggest to the reader who this man is: his stature, his standing, his manner, the guy that’s going to be played in the movie of him by Jeff Bridges we’re told. Who is he to you?
AR: Right. The stature’s easy; he’s got to be six and a half feet tall.
AR: 6’5”. He’s tall. He has a kind of a divine white beard which fits the role. George is someone who is everywhere. I just saw him today at another meeting, so he seems to have doppelgangers and clones of himself. It’s incredible how many different places he seems to be able to appear at once to influence all these conversations.
CL: Brilliant, it goes without saying, but also remarkably, everybody kind of likes George Church.
AR: Everybody likes him. He’s got a ton of followers. All kinds of stray cats in the biological world kind of end up at his doorstep, which is why I’m interested in him because I’m looking for those stories. They’re always around, and he seems to know everyone and has sort of advanced notice of all the kind of most strange and interesting things going on in biotech.
CL: Antonio, I put it to George Church that he’s something new in the long line of famous Boston doctors: Paul Dudley White became the White House heart doctor in the Eisenhower 1950s. Frannie Moore of the Brigham made the cover of TIME for bringing science to surgery in the 60s. Bernard Lown, the cardiologist who’s still with us fought the nuclear arms race and won a Nobel Peace Prize in the 80s.
CL: Here you are: a scientific entrepreneur, adventurer. I won’t say Buccaneer but completely a new model of what is the heroic Boston doctor.
GC: Well I think the main thing is here is it’s more of a team effort than ever before. I’m just an icon for an entire ecosystem in the Boston area where you have you know a record number of pharmaceutical companies, a record number of investors that have the long view where they’re willing to invest in a long term return. Anyway the point is that Boston has this unique community, and I’m just an icon for a piece of it — the transformative technology component — and I have a lot of people, and we can influence medicine in a way that an individual doctor cannot. An individual doctor can do a surgery on us on an influential person like a president, but a technology can suddenly spread worldwide. I mean you know, one day we had this idea for next gen sequencing, couple of years later we have it, a couple of years later there are three million women a year getting non-invasive prenatal testing with next generation sequencing. So that’s a big medical influence of a relatively small team. But the teams we have now are bigger than we had back in the era you were talking about.
CL: How does it feel for the icon himself?
GC: You know I just try to do my job. We work very hard and try to be creative and thoughtful and consider the ethics because this is an exponential technology, not just a technology. And whenever you’re going fast and faster you have to be particularly more communicative so nobody is taken by surprise. You have to listen. It’s not just communicating out, it’s communicating in. So that’s how it feels to “be an icon.” You’re at the fulcrum on a number of forces that you need to be responsive.
AR: Would you like not to be the icon sometimes?
GC: I think it’s like anything if you train for it long enough, you get used to it. And you know elite athletes get used to a lot of pain and and they smile, and they love shooting those baskets knowing that they’re going to be dealing with their knee for a while afterwards. You know I think it’s a net positive for me personally.
CL: I just want to lay down my own wariness of the whole thing. I think the common man wonders several things. One, the science is just too damn hard. Makes brain surgery look easy.
GC: I could do this I can’t do brain surgery. So I disagree.
CL: Second thing, the atmosphere around this science, CRISPR. I mean science as a search for knowledge. But this one is so colored by markets, by corporate investment, by exclusive patents, private ownership, and then especially commercial applications. A third reservation for me: we’re talking about the soul of an infinitely evolved species, an ancient species, and we speak of it though as gene science. To me that’s a reduction, and something of an evasion. But then fourth, the shadow of eugenics hangs over this whole story. Maybe a primal aspiration to a better life, to live better, but an invitation also to sheer folly. It was also, we’ve got to remember, a sort of a faux-innocent British and American science before the Nazis made a world class disaster of it in the 20th century.
So these things all keep my dukes up about what’s going on here, and I mean it sort of as general reservations, and scientists too will say these kinds of things — are we ready for this?
GC: My dukes are up in the exactly same direction yours are. I would not like a repeat of almost anything the Nazis did. But eugenics predated them and post-dated them. It started in the United States and other countries — in England, Scandinavia in the 30s, and extended into the 70s in the United States. OK. So the thing I think that was most reprehensible about eugenics was government intervention in personal, reproductive decision making. I think that’s what really gets a lot of people concerned, so choosing to have good outcomes, good health outcomes, is usually not revulsive. On the contrary, most people think that’s a good thing. If you could do it accurately and you could do it fairly. So one of the big ethical issues that I hear again and again I totally agree with is equitable distribution of new technologies. I think a lot of the concern we have is for things — technologies that don’t work that are unsafe or ineffective or are not distributed properly. The FDA takes care of the first two but not the third one.
So I think if you had eugenics, good ways of improving your genetics, including somatic gene therapy —
CL: Somatic meaning your body alone —
GC: My body, not my germline. You could do good genes via non-germline. That goal is acceptable, and intervening with your family care should only be in cases where you’re doing something that’s unsafe, and there are plenty of families that do unsafe things for their children right now, and some of those are subject to law enforcement.
CL: I still I still worry about the whole impulse to improve the breed you know as if we were horses or dogs, and God knows we spent a lot of time breeding them for one thing or another, but just the thought of doing it with human beings makes you quiver.
GC: So first of all you said at one point that we’re a highly evolved species. We’re not. We’re actually pretty brand new. Humans have really only been even remotely human for a few million years, okay. And in terms of breeding and selecting for traits that we like, we did that on humans before we did it on dogs and horses, okay. We were choosing our mates, we were selecting, we were doing some things that we would certainly not consider doing today like infanticide, so forth, if the infants looked like they were malformed. So I would push back gently. We’re not emulating our dog breeding in working in humans; it’s the other way around. The dog breeding came second. That doesn’t mean that it’s right just because it’s old or natural or anything like that. We need to question everything including the old ways. But the concerns are more, and we going to increase gaps in wealth, are we going to take proper safety measures in the presence of high economic risk — that was one of your earlier points — or high economic profits. And we see many examples of where the government, our society, is basically run by voting, and voting is run by companies’ voting, which means the citizens are voting with their wallet. But then the companies — there’s a feedback loop where the companies do ads, and they do other manipulations that get you to vote in their way. Right? But they are just us. It’s not like we can say, “those companies.” We are those companies. All citizens that spend their money are influencing and being influenced by that whole system. It’s kind of outside what we normally consider the democratic ballot system, but it is just as powerful. And when that’s applied to pharmaceuticals sometimes you will get bad outcomes but they’ll get caught. You know Vioxx was not a particularly malicious intent, and it got caught, but in Phase IV long after the clinical trials were done . I think the same thing could happen with a variety of these advanced technologies we’re talking about here today.
CL: Your turn, Antonio.
AR: Well I mean the subject is Brave New World, right, so I just wanted to touch on Soma. You know marijuana is being legalized. And I think there was a news headline that maybe you know Budweiser InBev had created a deal with a marijuana company to formulate it into beers. So kind of related to what you just said, I’ve become concerned about a feedback loop of technology, of people who specialize in delivery of pharmaceutical products and just marijuana. You know, what is what is the dose the population is going to get in what forms. It’s just us; we’re doing it.
And I was just wondering if you had a take on —
GC: I think that’s a beautiful segue from what we’re just talking about, about how the business the feedback loop includes us and basically we ask what we want, and they give us what we want, which then turns out wasn’t really what we wanted. So what we should be worrying about is not cognitive enhancement, which is what people talk about constantly when they worry about enhancement; we should be worried about cognitive self-disablement, which is what happens all the time with a variety of mind drugs. In the same sense we shouldn’t be worrying about artificial intelligence, we should be worrying about artificial stupidity, where our machines mess us up on a regular and themselves up on a regular basis.
So what’s happened is all the things that benefited our ancestors — they were cut off almost hardwired into our brains — a need for fats and sugars and sex and violence, we can now have as much as we want, right? And we do. And they and they go so far off the cliff that you know instead of sex for procreation, we now have you know people that are addicted to pornography, or worse, involving you know abuse. Instead of having, you know, kind of a way of transmitting information by talking and reading, you know, have people that live in these artificial worlds which started with stories, and the list goes on. If we have complete control of our brain, are we going to be like the rats in the Skinner cage that just keep pressing the dopamine button over and over and we don’t do anything else? That’s a much bigger threat to society I think than a small cognitive enhancement that keeps off cognitive decline. But it’s a matter of of amount and timing. So I think that’s an excellent concern, and now’s the time to talk about it
AR: In terms of biology, though, in terms of modifying DNA, can you picture a future feedback loop in which modifying DNA is the thing that people do for better or maybe for worse. I mean what would that — what would it what would the soma of DNA modification be.
Church: It’s an open question as to whether we are going to be or are already more skillful at manipulating biology via DNA than versus say small molecules or proteins, which are kind of the previous darlings of the pharmaceutical industry. My gut feeling with DNA is much closer to programming, is much more powerful, faster feedback, and that’s where we’ll go. But to some extent doesn’t really matter. We will be changing ourselves biologically and radically. And when it comes to the mind, our choice is going to be do we individually or societally decide to prevent, at least temporarily, certain things from happening? So could we alter our biology — I use biology as a surrogate for DNA plus all the rest — are we going to alter our brain biology so that we become less addictive, in other words we can’t get addicted to nicotine and opioids and so forth. This could be done, something that’s done voluntarily. You sign, you show that you understand it by taking a test, and it’s reversible let’s say. But it means that you’re protecting yourself from it. That might be something. Can we protect ourselves from radical violence? In other words, even fairly reasonable people in a really bad scenario will do something that could send them to prison. And you can say they’re a victim at some some level. Most of us think we wouldn’t do that. But you know I think given the right circumstances, if you’re, say protecting your kids from someone you think is way more evil, that’s a tougher decision I think because you might want to be able to do violence if you need to.
CL: Antonio Regalado you stole the show there with Huxley’s Brave New World and SOMA… spell that out.
AR: Brave New World is the sort of ultimate eugenic dystopia —
CL: 1984 for grown ups.
AR: Yeah, right. It starts, I think the opening scene is in the London Hatchery where they’re hatching the new generations and it’s all done through process of creating embryos, splitting embryos. And there’s a caste system, right. Some people become Alphas and they wear white tunics, and then others, the embryos are actually damaged to make them lesser creatures, and they are the Deltas and they’re dressed in black tunics, and so there’s a caste system, and the way the caste system is kept in place is through Soma, a drug, you know, a feelgood drug that everybody takes.
CL: So Brave New World… What’s being fulfilled?
AR: The technologies in the book, in the London Hatchery, are technologies that we now have, to create embryos in the dish, to split them, to alter them for better or for worse. I mean, we have the technologies, so the novel in that sense is a good prediction. What are we going to use it for, to be healthy? to be good? to feel good?
Some of the modifications that we might want aren’t just the obvious ones that people always think about. They could be to our moral character, right, to eliminate the animal in us. We’re adapted to what, to a lifestyle of living in caves and throwing sticks and rocks and hunting; you know, genetic modification if we possibly knew how could be used to make people who behave more ethically, better people.
CL: Decode Dr Church again. Is he talking gene editing for health or for enhancement? Does he answer that question — enhancement meaning a different species?
AR: I don’t know that we asked him the question; we should. He does distribute a list, it’s called the transhuman wish list. It is a list of genes that can be altered. They’re called knockouts, genes you just remove that would endow people with very interesting traits.
For instance there’s one if you remove a gene your bones are harder than a drill. There’s another one. If you eliminate it, you’re immune to HIV. That’s what JK did. It’s on Dr. Church’s list. There’s another one PCSK9: people who lack this gene have incredibly low levels of cholesterol. And now people are making drugs to mimic this genetic effect. But of course you could install these changes into a person. And why would you want to? Well, to improve their health, maybe to get off the planet, to be suited to a long ride in a spacecraft, one of Elon Musk’s spacecrafts to Mars. You know, we’re not well suited to life in outer space, but we could be better suited through a little bit of engineering.
CL: Dr. Church is going to talk about that: getting off the planet as he likes to say. I should’ve pressed harder on the commercialization of this science. The thought that someday inevitably investors are going to say, “There’s your pot of gold over there. Forget what you’re doing here.” Who’s in control?
AR: George starts every talk with a slide — it’s now famous among the community. And it’s his conflict of interest disclosure slide, and always gets a laugh because the slide is absolutely crammed with every logo of every company you’ve ever heard of.
So he kind of deflects the question of his commercial entanglements by saying, you know, that he’s working with everybody. In a commercial sense, he’s extremely promiscuous. Anybody who comes, I don’t know about anybody, but he’ll work with these companies to help them, give them inputs, so he’s kind of everywhere at once and that’s his defense against say an accusation of being in it for the money or something like that.
In this area, to develop a drug, to have a drug on the market, to develop some new cure, you know, it’s kind of the ultimate success.
Listen to me. Nobody at Harvard is worried about the commercialization of science and technology. That’s the whole point. It’s the whole point. If it’s gonna get used, if it’s going to go from discovery to technology, right, a tool, it’s gonna be commercialized. That’s the point. There’s no point asking him, you know, are you against commercialization or is there something wrong with commercialization. That’s the system that we have that generates all these ideas. If you want to go somewhere, you know the island of Cuba, fine. You’re not going to find any biotechnology, or not much, great doctors.
CL: We know now about Google, that there came a moment of truth when the investors said, “Forget about search as a service. You’re making money on surveillance and sales: that’s your future.” Does this happen to gene editing?
AR: It could. I mean the risk that he was talking about is the feel-good risk, you know. If you don’t watch out how things go, someone will put on the market a drug — opioids, he mentioned a drug Vioxx, also a painkiller — that can harm people. So that’s the risk, that the things that we want won’t be very good for us.
Who’s in control? I don’t know. But I notice that he’s not asking anybody’s permission. He’s not asking your permission. He’s not asking my permission. He has an in-house ethicist that works in his lab. He has his own ethicist. So he’s thinking about the ethical questions but he’s not asking for permission, which I find interesting.
CL: Coming up… George Church can do stuff you and I cannot…
Coming up: A DNA reading lesson with George Church. This is Open Source.
I’m Christopher Lydon. This is Open Source, with the bio-tech reporter Antonio Regalado at the frontier of genetic medicine. Just a reminder, Antonio, George Church is not like you and me. His reading habits remind me of a Boston Symphony violist Eugene Lehner, who told me once his reading habit at bedtime wasn’t prose or poetry, it was little scores of Beethoven String Quartets, and he heard them in depth as he drifted off. George Church says he can read endless strands of chemical clues in your DNA and see what’s going on.
GC: There’s synesthesia where you can morph one kind of sense into another sense. I feel quite comfortable with the DNA especially I can write short bits of it. I can certainly read those same short bits, but the human genome is vast. I mean it’s 6 billion base pairs just to read one of my cells. That’s hard to process. Now I am not a human anymore. I am an augmented human that uses computers, and so a computer plus I can read a vast amount of information, and I have read my genome many times, with the aid of computers, and you can see things that are medically actionable, you can see things that are just plain interesting, and things that that merit more research. You know I don’t think it’s that hard to read, and we’re getting better and better at it exponentially.
CL / VO: George Church got famous, got onto the Stephen Colbert show, recounting his ambition to bring back the extinct Wooly Mammoth. He was misunderstood to say he was looking for a human woman to incubate a neo-Neanderthal baby with that had been frozen for thousands of years. He confirmed to AR and me that he is working on extending the lifespan of dogs, to learn more about humans.
AR: I think that people would be interested in seeing a Neanderthal in person. And you have a project to bring back a woolly mammoth. And the exact same formula could be used to bring back a Neanderthal. Could be used. So the question is, to me, would we do it, Why would we do it, Will we do it?
GC: There’s almost no motivation for Neanderthal other than curiosity, and considering how many barriers there are for human germline manipulation in general, that’s a double or triple non-starter. But the mammoth, we realized immediately and since then the rationale have grown, that it not only is valuable for an existing species, the Asian elephant, which is endangered; you could give it a few new properties that would make it survive better in the modern world, but it could also benefit the carbon sequestration in the Arctic, which is about 19 million square kilometers where you both have the risk of releasing methane and carbon dioxide and the promise of sequestering it.
CL: What’s the news on extending the life expectancy of dogs?
GC: I mean we really want to extend youth, not life expectancy, of dogs and humans. Dogs are a very important and interesting milestone along the path because it’s much easier to get FDA approval, much easier to conduct the clinical trials, and hence the costs are much lower. And they’re a much better model for humans than, say, mice are. And then moving from a success of either maintaining youthfulness or reversing aging in dogs would be very valuable for justifying a small Phase 1 clinical trial in humans.
CL: That’s where I shudder a little bit, I mean the thought that we will all be in some dog shows some day, different varieties different, we will be rated on changes that have been made in us.
GC: I mean we’re already in dog shows. We’re definitely compared to one another based on our biological features. There’s studies showing that your attractiveness, your height — various features — can affect your income, which in turn can affect your healthcare. So to say that we’re not in dog shows I think is false reassurance.
CL: Can I go back to the icon. I have a Ulysses image of George Church, a man tempted to dare the forbidden. After the war of Troy was over and Ulysses got home to Ithaca, he got restless and he rallied his troops, his men. “We’ve got to get out of here.” And he he led them back to the boat to seek a newer world, as Tennyson put it, beyond the sunset,beyond Gibraltar, into the wild Atlantic where of course they go down to death in the end. Tennyson’s poem, a great poem, makes Ulysses the heroic modern adventure, but Dante, greater poem, probably, puts Ulysses on the bottom rung in hell for breaking the rule. For going past the mark, so you can have that argument indefinitely. Where is too far? I wonder if you ever feel that is your dilemma?
GC: I think that’s well framed. I would say that I don’t particularly identify with Ulysses in that case. I think the problem is one of existential risk. So he took a risk that that quote, only hurt his ship. He did not take a risk for the entire world. Obviously when the entire world is at risk, that’s a much bigger stakes. But the thing to very carefully consider is the world is at risk if you don’t do things as well. So it’s not. It’s like inactivity is not some panacea either. And so the classic hero, the real dilemma is all the doors that you can open, or not open. Each of those is a decision. And the heroes that I admire are the ones that maybe by some combination of their education and luck, pick the right doors and open doors that we all agree for many generations afterwards were good ones.
But the best you can do is to try to get something that will last well beyond your lifetime, and I think right now the dilemmas that we’re facing where we really can’t sit still, we can’t do nothing, nothing is not a good option, have to do with the fact that we’re greatly above the carrying capacity of our planet. It doesn’t mean the solution is to kill 6 billion of the 7.5 billion people. It’s to figure out how we can have sustainable, maybe even sustainable growth. Furthermore we can’t sit still while our planet gets bombarded by asteroids. We need to have a backup planet. So these are things where the limit which is what you’re asking about, there’s a limit on both sides: how little you can do, and how much. There are win win situation. It’s not all tradeoffs. There are cases where you can go establish a colony somewhere in a very safe manner.
CL: But when you stand way back, and most people do stand very far back from your frontier, you can also say why change the most microscopic inner mechanism of the being itself. Why not teach better, learn better, discipline better, best practices better. There are other ways to save the planet, to save the species, to live happier, longer, better, richer lives. The choice of going for the inside formula is a kind of arbitrary one, isn’t it? Not arbitrary, but it’s a choice.
GC: It is. I think that you can flip that around which is, why do one thing and not another? Why not do both? In other words, why not educate and improve our health. Right? Because healthier kids are going to learn better. You can you can be as creative as you want, but if your child has malaria, and tuberculosis, and HIV, you’re going to be spending a lot of your time taking care of — the whole family, the whole village — is going to be taking care of the sickest people rather than educating. They’re going to be impoverished. Should it be this, or that, or why not an and, as long as you’re being cautious about both things that you’re doing.
CL: Except, you speak of families. With our children, we don’t say when they come back with a bad grade or whatever, or they don’t master their instrument or whatever. We don’t say, we’re going to remake your your mechanics. We’re going to practice harder, we’re going to learn something from that experience. We’re going to do it differently.
GC: Whenever you have two ways to improve something, sometimes one way works better sometimes another way works better. You picked one where I think it’s mostly on the side of more training, but we could easily come up with lots of other things where your biology is more important. So again if that violin lesson were happening in a place where everybody had to bring tuberculosis, malaria and HIV it wouldn’t be just a matter of getting better lessons or a better tutor. It would be a matter of dealing with the fact that they can barely keep their eyes open, or can barely hold a violin in their hands.
CL: I said I’d ask you before we were done, how you’d tweak your own genome if you could. But first question really is: will we come soon, even in our lifetimes, to tweaking our DNA the way we take a pill, and will things that we take pills for be licensed in as things you can tweak, for example depression anxiety diabetes. Will tweaks be the new pill? Which pills would you want to take for yourself. Which would you prescribe for me?
GC: I’m not going write a prescription for you. I’m not your physician. For myself I’m actually a terrible advertising for my industry, if you consider my industry pharmaceuticals. I mean it’s not really the only thing I do, but it is one of things I do. I actually don’t take any drugs whatsoever. I just you know I just had a tooth pulled, and I didn’t take any drugs for that. When they drill I don’t need anesthetics I often fall asleep. I’m a terrible ad for pharmaceuticals. And I stopped taking statins and switched to a vegan diet instead which in my case was more effective.
CL: But imagine tweaking your your DNA. Where would you start?
GC: Well probably, I’d have the same the attitude that I have towards pharmaceuticals in general which is I probably wouldn’t do anything until it became totally obvious what to do. So one of the things I probably am motivated by long term after all the dust settles in animal trials would be certain rejuvenative protection from decline, reversal of aging. We have very promising results in mice that is now going into dog clinical trials. If that really works well I might be tempted to try it.
CL: If it does work well let me know.
I am devoutly tied to the notion — I mean almost religiously attached to the notion — that I am not my DNA
CL: Would having my genome sequenced compromise that or challenge?
GC: “Your DNA is not your destiny” is another way of stating that.
CL: I still think of myself more as the song of my soul more than the DNA.
GC: Fair enough. But your soul but for you to experience your soul, you have to have a functional brain. To have a functional brain, you probably need DNA at some point in your life. And to how maintain that functional brain in a useful state, you may benefit from manipulating your DNA. So I’m totally with you. The DNA is not all of us, and it’s not even necessarily a big part of us, but it’s not a duality really, you know, where you have to choose. It’s more a mixture. So sometimes people talk about: It’s not just spirit and DNA. It’s spirit and environment and DNA, and the environment includes your social network and your education, all that stuff. That’s what makes you who you are. And all of those things are seem to be negotiable.
AR: You’re talking about the soul. Do you have a religion, a cosmology about how life began here. A lot of biologists that I talked to I end up learning that they do believe in a design that is put here, I don’t know, by an asteroid or by a heavenly finger or what. Do you have a religion or something equivalent to it?
GC: So I would say that denial of religion is itself a religion.
I would say that there is a number of things about science that I take on faith. I tried to reproduce even physics experiments, things outside of my field as I was growing up so I could reassure myself that it’s not just faith. But I’m not fearful of faith. I don’t think that faith is necessarily bad.
I think spirituality is a great resource worldwide, and to deny that is to deny the physics and chemistry and biology of billions of people.
Now whether there was a genial, white haired, male looking like a European, who was doing this, I think is more debatable. We don’t need to necessarily personify it. There is not a gigantic rift between religion and science. I mean I was at the Vatican recently and they had very thoughtful discussions about germ line engineering, where they actually said that sperm engineering might be a good alternative to termination, for example. It would be a way to allow people to have marriage and child rearing in a completely natural way, rather than in vitro fertilization and termination.
And in general religions are responsive to the real world and to science, and they maybe wait a little bit longer, require a little more evidence but eventually Galileo and Darwin are OK.
So. I’m fairly, you know, fact-based but not fearful of spirituality and faith.
CL: Dr. George Church, it’s a terrific pleasure, as well as privileged to sit with you. You’re as open and free as we could possibly want. Thank you. Let’s do it again.
GC: Yeah I’d be happy to do it again. Yeah.
CL: What did you learn, Antonio?
AR: I like where we ended up you know: Is there a cosmic engineer and does he look like George? But he is an engineer and I think you know everything you said, it’s, he saying don’t treat DNA as if it’s special. And if it was steel, and we’re trying to build a bridge over the river, a lot of things George is saying would make sense: we have to make it safe. We want to make sure it works. Is it useful? You know this is the engineer’s concerns is the way he talks about DNA, and so I think listening to him, it is really not a scientist but an engineer’s point of view about what should we be doing. What’s going to work, what’s going to be safe…
CL: I like the way he talked about his project. The real bravery is seeing a problem that nobody else sees and risking embarrassment by attacking it.
AR: The thing that tempts him most Chris was age reversal. He doesn’t take any drugs. He’s a vegan, a stoic, but the one thing that tempts him, ad that his lab is working on, is this question of postponing aging, stopping aging, reversing aging. That’s the great temptation. And can he pull it off? That might be the last act. And then he can stick around!
CL: Yeah. Does he mean it, Antonio, about the backup planet — that this is all preliminary to colonizing space?
AR: It’s something that he talks about, but the kinds of humans that we might need to send into outer space to live in outer space, might not even be recognizable as human anymore. Right.
CL: They might not be born yet. For sure.
AR: They might not be born yet. But this idea of getting off the planet, to get a backup going and maybe to spread, is definitely one of the big ideas that people like George keep injecting into the conversation.
What I want are the breadcrumbs and I found a couple and I’ll tell you what they are. These are things that George said that to me imply an ongoing quote unquote secret project. One was this issue about bridging species. You asked about species, could could humans bifurcate into different species. He said, Well actually it might go the other way, we might be sort of combining species.
CL: This is of course the final nightmarish end of that amazing movie Sorry To Bother You, in which horses and people had been combined with the strength of horses and presumably the wit of men, but they’re prisoners.
AR: It’s also the Island of Dr. Moreau. A monkey and a man. The monkey man. As a journalist that’s a great story and I and I saw breadcrumb leading in that direction.
Another one of course is this question of sperm. He mentioned at the Vatican might be okay with genetically modifying one’s own sperm. There’s a lot of technical reasons, if you’re gonna make the designer babies you want to start by altering sperm cells. It was a clear breadcrumb: the path forward for genetic modification of people is through the modification of sperm first because then you can control it better.
It’s the substance of the next story, I think.
CL: Antonio thank you so much. Couldn’t have done this alone.
AR: Thanks for having me Chris. It’s been interesting.
Thank you Antonio Regalado and thank you George Church. Our music came from John Dunn and M.A. Clarke. It’s Protein Music, made by converting protein strands into notes and sounds. For listeners, thank you for making it to the credits, but we want more than your attention. The future of humankind needs input from a lot more people who do not read or write DNA. Dr. Church spoke of preparing for “radical changes in our biology.” Are you ready for “genetically modified people”? Your comments please at radio-open-source dot org, please.