Genetics: The Future Approaching

In its short history, genetics has been the focus of intense study, wild advancement, and unceasing progress. What’s next?

In Informed Consent, Jillian exclaims that genomic research is progressing “at super exponential speeds.” It’s not hyperbole: in the scant 150 years of genetics as a field, we’ve gone from identifying the gene’s existence to unlocking its structure to editing its makeup. The future of the field is almost unimaginable in its scope.

Though DNA was first isolated in 1869 by Friedrich Miescher, its structure wasn’t identified until 1953 when Watson and Crick, using the work of Rosalind Franklin and Maurice Wilkins, published their article on the double helix just 60 years ago. DNA’s role in heredity was only confirmed one year before the structural breakthrough. The first 80 years of the field gave us the building blocks; the next 50 put them to use.

Friedrich Miescher, who first isolated DNA (left); Watson, Crick, and their DNA model (right)

Since the structural breakthrough, the genetic code of many animals, including humans, has now been cracked, allowing for advances in food and agriculture, forensic science, and studies in evolution. Mutations that cause illness have been pinpointed, and in many cases this knowledge can allow for preventative action or early treatment.

One of the most significant steps was the full sequencing of the human genome. When that project was completed in 2003, it cost $2.7 billion dollars and took 13 years. Today, just 14 years later, a person’s genome can be sequenced in a matter of weeks and might cost as little as $1,400.

An early example of DNA sequencing (left); a modern sequencing using dyes to identify the individual bases (right)

Now that our genes can be read, scientists have discovered methods of editing them. A major leap forward in the ability to change the genetic code is CRISPR, a process of genetic modification that uses an enzyme called Cas9 to edit a DNA sequence in a highly targeted way. It can disrupt genes and insert sequences, which has enormous potential in the search for cures for genetic disease. Before CRISPR, editing a single gene might take two years; with CRISPR, it can be done in a matter of days. It’s also inexpensive, which makes it very accessible for research. The CRISPR technique has been in use for a few years, but 2016 marked a period of significant advancement — and ethical questions.

In April 2016, researchers in Sweden, led by developmental biologist Fredrik Lanner, were able to edit DNA in healthy and viable human embryos, which could lead to breakthroughs for healthy pregnancies, embryonic development, and stem cell research. While the embryos did not result in an actual live birth, this carried implications for the way artificial changes to the genome might be able to be passed down between generations.

Five months later in October, a team of Chinese scientists injected a person with cells that contained genes edited with CRISPR for the first time, in an attempt to treat an aggressive form of lung cancer. The edited genes turned off a protein that inhibits the immune system; scientists hope that genetic modification will allow the body to fight the cancer more efficiently. U.S. trials are planned with a similar process in an effort to fight three different forms of cancer.

While CRISPR has incredible potential to treat or prevent disease in humans, animals, and even plants, some scientists worry that the speed at which its applications are being discovered is dangerous. The technology is accessible, inexpensive, and relatively simple, and in the rush to discover new uses, ethical considerations and safety concerns might be ignored. Some scientists worry that the full effects of risky genome edits are unknown, and others are concerned that edited organisms could disrupt an entire ecosystem.

The questions that arise when our abilities outpace any existing ethical framework aren’t limited to gene editing. For example, gene patenting was deemed unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court in 2013; before that ruling, more than 4,300 genes had been patented by the scientist or corporation that first identified them, giving sole access for testing, use, and any resulting profit to those patent-holders. This raises questions of ownership — can a corporation own an individual’s genes? Can a person profit from their DNA?

As the field progresses by leaps and bounds, our ability to assimilate and draw boundaries must keep pace.

Join us for Informed Consent at Lantern Theater Company, January 12 — February 12. Visit our website for tickets and information.

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Lantern Theater Company

Lantern Theater Company

Creating intimate and engaging theater in Philadelphia since 1994.