Sep 5, 2014

The Transhumanist Scrapbook: MIT and Selective Gene Repair: Explicit Benefits, and Implicit Dangers


There’s been another important development in the “quadrangle” of GRIN technologies(genetics, robotics, information processing, and nanotechnology) that form the Tranhumanist movement’s vision of the “singularity”, and this time it’s in the world of genetics:

Editing the genome with high precision

There are some key paragraphs here:
“The new system is much more user-friendly, Zhang says. Making use of naturally occurring bacterial protein-RNA systems that recognize and snip viral DNA, the researchers can create DNA-editing complexes that include a nuclease called Cas9 bound to short RNA sequences. These sequences are designed to target specific locations in the genome; when they encounter a match, Cas9 cuts the DNA.
This approach can be used either to disrupt the function of a gene or to replace it with a new one. To replace the gene, the researchers must also add a DNA template for the new gene, which would be copied into the genome after the DNA is cut.
Each of the RNA segments can target a different sequence. “That’s the beauty of this — you can easily program a nuclease to target one or more positions in the genome,” Zhang says.
The method is also very precise — if there is a single base-pair difference between the RNA targeting sequence and the genome sequence, Cas9 is not activated. This is not the case for zinc fingers or TALEN. The new system also appears to be more efficient than TALEN, and much less expensive.”(Emphasis added)
You’ll note that while previous genetic splicing and dicing was a more hit-and-miss affair, this new technique allows the targeting of a specific gene, and that this targeting can be used either to alter a specific gene’s function, or replace it with an entirely new one.

The process appears already to have been utilized to correct a liver disorder in laboratory mice by correcting a mutated gene causing the disorder:

Erasing a genetic mutation

This is all, so far as it goes, good news, and especially for people suffering liver disorders which could presumably be corrected by altering the function of a mutated gene, or simply removing it and replacing it with a gene causing healthy liver function. One can imagine more extensions of this technology to, say, the pancreas and the problem of diabetes which many have long suspected to have some genetic correlation, or perhaps even deadly pancreatic cancer.

As with all emerging technologies, however, there are implicit dangers as well, and we’ve seen some of them already evident with the GMO issue: what are the long-term intergenerational effects of such technologies? Will their development enhance, or ultimately inhibit, natural evolutionary processes, the very processes which have, for example, built up immune systems? If genetic therapies are widely practiced on a generation for various chronic illnesses, what, if any, will be the effect on their offspring’s natural ability to ward off disease through the immune system? It is a cautionary lesson that the GMO issue has only all too starkly reminded us of: falling crop yields, and a growing concern in the literature that the GMO foods are causing various health problems, including, if you’ll recall, declining litters in a Danish pig farmer’s pigs when fed a steady diet of GMOs.

And as you’ll have guessed, there are also greater possibilities available in the creation of chimeras, blends of DNA from one species with that of another, for now specific areas and genes can be targeted and their functions modified or simply be replaced.

Of course, these are the concerns of an amateur, of a non-scientist and non-geneticist. But it is the essence of science at any given moment to be proven wrong over time, and with that lesson in mind, before jumping on any confident medical assurances – after all, the medical and drug industry is always truthful, right? – we need to insist that technologies affecting the very processes of all life be subject to the most rigorous inter-generational testing possible, and that any human volunteers for tests of new therapies be fully apprised of the implicit possibilities.

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