Modification of human genes is almost a reality

MIT Technology Review editor-in-chief Antonio Regalado spoke with Harvard Medical School staff who specialize in the development of genetic modification techniques. The main conclusion to which he came is this: interference with human DNA is more a matter of ethics than a scientific problem. What interventions are permissible and what can they lead to? Is society ready for the fact that a person can be constructed before his birth? And how soon will the plot of the film “Gattaca” become an everyday reality? A young Harvard employee, Dr. Luhan Yang, one of the key figures in the development of the CRISPR-Cas9 genetic manipulation method , recently founded a biotech company that is focused on changing the genomes of cattle. He says the same technique can be used to modify human genes. For example, now nothing prevents scientists from replacing the defective gene responsible for the development of sickle cell anemia or Alzheimer’s disease in humans . Despite its shortcomings, CRISPR has already been successfully applied not only to pets, but also to primates. For example, the genes of a pair of macaques were modified last year to regulate their metabolism and stem cell production. The monkeys were born healthy, but it takes three years before they reach puberty for the genetic modification to be verified. Now, according to Harvard geneticists, they have at their disposal about 20 monkey embryos, so they estimate the expected time of the same manipulations with human DNA at 10-20 years.

It was with the help of CRISPR-Cas9 that a group of scientists led by Professor of the Salk Institute (USA) Juan Carlos Izpisua Belmonte recently conducted a successful experiment to remove fragments of the immunodeficiency virus from human DNA. In the viral DNA, special markers in the form of RNA molecules were installed, marking fragments for removal. This method was tested on lymphocytes and other cells of the immune system infected with HIV. The first version of RNA markers was able to remove the virus and its traces in 72% of cells. Both the “fresh” DNA of the virus and its “dormant” copies were destroyed. A recent sociological study in the United States showed that modern society as a whole is ready for such manipulations. Adults were asked whether they agree that their child’s genes will be genetically modified to make him “smarter” and less susceptible to serious diseases. A significant number of respondents were positive

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