DNA tweak­ing helps peo­ple with ge­netic de­fects

The Guardian (Charlottetown) - - HEALTH - Dr. Gif­ford Jones Dr. W. Gif­ford-Jones is a syn­di­cated colum­nist whose med­i­cal col­umn ap­pears in The Guardian ev­ery Tues­day. Check out his web­site, www.docgiff.com, which pro­vides easy ac­cess to past col­umns and med­i­cal tips. For com­ments, read­ers are inv

Is it an im­pos­si­ble dream to find Ponce de Leon’s Foun­tain of Youth? No! I’ve just at­tended my 67th re­union at The Har­vard Med­i­cal School (HMS) and, while in­ter­view­ing Dr. Ge­orge Church, I dis­cov­ered it is no longer sci­ence fic­tion.

Church, a pro­fes­sor of ge­net­ics at HMS, one of the world’s great sci­en­tists, pre­dicts we are about to end the aging process. In the next five years, no less. That’s why I say “Damn it, I was born too soon.”

Is Church too op­ti­mistic? Maybe, but when you see his 6-foot 5 inch body tow­er­ing over you, with his white beard, it’s like talk­ing to Charles Dar­win or even Je­sus Christ.

Just walk­ing through his huge lab­o­ra­tory is an awe­some ex­pe­ri­ence. Church’s re­search fa­cil­ity has over 100 re­searchers, and you know in­her­ently some­thing very spe­cial is hap­pen­ing.

Church claims our aging pop­u­la­tion is one of our ma­jor health prob­lems. He ex­plains that, if all our gray hairs could be re­ju­ve­nated, the dis­cov­ery would keep peo­ple work­ing, avert­ing an eco­nomic dis­as­ter.

So how is he go­ing to achieve this? It’s a com­pli­cated tech­nique. But ba­si­cally, it’s by cre­at­ing molec­u­lar scis­sors that en­able re­searchers to cut, edit and re­pro­gram our DNA. Genes are part of our DNA and genes de­ter­mine the colour of our eyes, our sex, in­tel­li­gence, in fact just about ev­ery­thing. Dur­ing this edit­ing, cells that cause un­favourable ge­netic changes are re­moved. Church says that once this tech­nique is per­fected, old cells may be re­ju­ve­nated and will never age again.

Church’s molec­u­lar en­gi­neer­ing is cur­rently be­ing done on an­i­mals. One project is to ge­net­i­cally en­gi­neer mice on Nan­tucket and Martha’s Vine­yard that would elim­i­nate Lyme dis­ease. The re­searchers have also al­tered pig genes so that their or­gans can be trans­planted into pa­tients with­out be­ing re­jected.

An­other god­send of Church’s re­search is the abil­ity of doc­tors to erad­i­cate the genes that cause cys­tic fi­bro­sis and other ge­netic dis­eases, those that con­demn pa­tients to a life of hell or early death.

Church is also tur­bocharg­ing ge­netic en­gi­neer­ing that may re­sult in cures for cancer and de­vel­op­ing bet­ter food crops. He says it will not be too long be­fore you can fuel up your car with­out wor­ry­ing about pol­lut­ing our planet. Rather, fuel will come from mi­crobes that have been ge­net­i­cally al­tered to pro­duce bio­fuel.

Like any ge­nius, Church has crit­ics. They say he is play­ing God. But Church in­sists he is sim­ply re-en­gi­neer­ing cells, and this is what dis­tin­guishes us from an­i­mals.

Does he worry about the im­pli­ca­tions of ge­netic en­gi­neer­ing? He an­swers with a big “Yes.” But he adds, “There is a dark side to ev­ery­thing in life. Af­ter all, cars kill peo­ple ev­ery year, but we don’t stop pro­duc­ing them.” Ting Wu, Church’s wife, also a Har­vard ge­neti­cist, claims he ex­hibits a huge sense of re­spon­si­bil­ity. He makes sure the pub­lic is aware of the re­search he is do­ing.

I asked Church, “Does this mean the end of ba­bies if no one dies and what about over­pop­u­la­tion?” But he says there is still am­ple land and even sug­gested the pos­si­bil­ity of peo­ple shar­ing chil­dren.

As I left his lab­o­ra­tory I was con­vinced crit­ics will never end their cry that he is play­ing God. But, that his re­search will be a bless­ing for those with ge­netic de­fects. That sci­ence al­ways wins, as you can­not stop progress. And what a plea­sure it was for me to have in­ter­viewed a sci­en­tist who is des­tined for the No­bel Prize. And wished fate had post­poned my birth a few more years.

Re­turn vis­its to HMS are now emo­tional for me as few class­mates are alive. In­evitably, I re­call the first time I ar­rived at the HMS. It was a beau­ti­ful night with a full moon shin­ing down on five stun­ning white mar­ble build­ings. I knew then, as I know now, that in­cred­i­ble achieve­ments would emerge from that in­sti­tu­tion.

I couldn’t be­lieve I’d been ac­cepted as a stu­dent. Nor did I re­al­ize I would be for­tu­nate to spend most of my sur­gi­cal train­ing at HMS. Or that aging would one day be erad­i­cated there.

Har­vard’s motto is, “Truth.” In the 41 years I have writ­ten this col­umn I have kept that word in mind.


Dr. W. Gif­ford-Jones meets Dr. Ge­orge Church af­ter his pre­sen­ta­tion at The Har­vard Med­i­cal School.

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