The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

A Harvard professor says he can cure aging, but is that a good idea?

A 3-D artist’s rendering of the powerful genome editing tool, CRISPR/Cas9. (Stephen Dixon)
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At the gene-editing summit, you can’t miss George Church. He’s the big guy with the bushy beard and wavy hair, someone who looks like he stepped out of an 18th century painting of “natural philosophers.” Church, who is 61, is among several hundred scientists, policymakers and thinkers on hand to discuss the powerful technology known as CRISPR, a new method for editing genes. The technique was invented in the past four years, and Church is among those who can claim at least partial credit for the innovation (there’s an intense legal battle over patents — a story for another day).

I mentioned to Church that this is the kind of work for which Nobels are awarded. He quickly responded that there are more important things in the balance than prizes. There are cures for human diseases, he said.

[How George Church used gene editing to improve the likelihood of pig-to-human organ transplants]

Church thinks that one of the ailments he can cure is aging. When I met him early this year, in his laboratory at Harvard Medical School, where he is professor of genetics, he expressed confidence that in just five or six years he will be able to reverse the aging process in human beings.

“A scenario is, everyone takes gene therapy — not just curing rare diseases like cystic fibrosis, but diseases that everyone has, like aging,” he said.

He noted that mice die after 2.5 years but bowhead whales can live to be 180 or 200.

“One of our biggest economic disasters right now is our aging population. If we eliminate retirement, then it buys us a couple of decades to straighten out the economies of the world,” he said.

Eliminate retirement? (I briefly envisioned being on deadline in my 90s.)

“If all those gray hairs could go back to work and feel healthy and young,” he said, “then we’ve averted one of the greatest economic disasters in history.”

He went on: “Someone younger at heart should replace you, and that should be you. I’m willing to. I’m willing to become younger. I try to reinvent myself every few years anyway.”

So on Tuesday, I asked him if he was still on track to reversing the aging process in the next five years or so. He said yes — and that it’s already happening in mice in the laboratory. The best way to predict the future, he said, is to predict things that have already happened.

Even without CRISPR, genetic engineering was becoming part of the fabric of modern life (your grocery store is full of products from soybeans and corn that have been genetically modified in laboratories). The big difference with CRISPR is how cheap it is, how handy, how flexible. This will put an amazing tool in the hands of a lot more researchers. (Another co-inventor of CRISPR, Feng Zhang, told the summit attendees that soon there will be an entire “toolbox” of CRISPR-like techniques that can be used to edit genes.)

For most of us lay people, what’s striking here is not the way that scientists fiddle with the code of life but the mere fact that they do it at all. Awed though we may be by the skills of the experimenters, we naturally question whether this is a good idea.

That’s the whole point of the gene-editing summit: To find a path forward that fosters innovation but avoids crossing into ethically dubious territory. Gene-editing could be a tool for eliminating heritable diseases. But it just as easily could be used for purely cosmetic enhancements, or for something smacking of eugenics. The gravest concern is that CRISPR enables germline edits that get passed on to future generations. You’re permanently changing the human species when you do that.

Who calls the shots here?

Intellectual humility requires scientists to go slowly. Editing genes isn’t like renovating your kitchen. As  Klaus Rajewsky, of the Max Delbruck Center for Molecular Medicine, pointed out Tuesday, “We have become masters in the art of manipulating genes, but our understanding of their function and interaction is far more limited.”

Eric Lander, who heads the Broad Institute in Cambridge and was a leader of the effort to sequence the human genome, offered a valediction to Tuesday’s session that addressed both the enormous possibilities of the new technologies and the reasons for being extremely cautious. He said there are 4,000 to 5,000 genetic variants associated with human diseases. But these variants don’t necessarily cause those diseases; they just make them slightly more prevalent. Moreover, genes can have multiple purposes — day jobs and night jobs, as Lander put it. These are complex systems, not modules that you can pop out and replace with a better version with zero unintended consequences.

Lander said he could think of only a handful of human diseases that CRISPR could plausibly address at this time, and even then, he said, we should ask whether such genetic manipulation is a good idea. That’s because Nature has had millions of years to do the same experiment and has not done so.

“If it is such a good idea, I want to scratch my head and say why didn’t evolution try to do that, and increase that in the population?” Lander said.

“We largely exist in a state of limited knowledge,” he said. “Before we make permanent changes to the human gene pool, we should exercise considerable caution.”

Which brings us back to aging. Is it a bug, or a feature?

In reporting this item I came across a story I wrote on biotech [please forgive bad formatting] and Craig Venter, published on Nov. 29, 1998, in the Post magazine. The most surprising line came from Venter:

“Intelligent application of this technology is one to two centuries away.”

A surprising comment from one of the big boosters of synthetic biology.

The story ends with my quasi-neo-crypto-Luddite peroration:

Perfection may be a dangerous goal. Nature has feedback systems. There are microbes that adapt to our every move. We think of ourselves as the rulers of the planet; the microbes think of us as a useful host. At some level, we’re still just a bunch of meat.
Perfection may not even be a goal worth pursuing. There is something more interesting about a mortal, imperfect life. Here’s a thought: The revolutionaries of the future will be the people who keep their lives natural. They will choose to grow old. They will allow themselves to experience pain and suffering, so that their joys and triumphs will be all the more intense. They will walk in the woods and sing songs and appreciate the bounty of the planet. Two lovers might put down a blanket and have a picnic. They will fall asleep, because they still get sleepy. They will do this instead of going to the lab to be genetically reengineered.

Further Reading:

Scientists debate the ethics of CRISPR

More George Church: Should we be worried about synthetic organisms cooked up in the lab?

Science doubters: Why some people find science so hard to believe