To give a weatherproof coating on the brickwork of my gene-related articles that cross to the grey zone between nature and science, this column is about how Britain is now right in the forefront to change human species. It’s because its laws for scientists to cross the barrier between fiction and non-fiction are more relaxed than other countries.
But ‘all is not quiet on the western front’. There are laws that prohibit Francis Crick Institute in London from producing genetically engineered humans though there is technology that is simple and powerful enough to do so. Yet, within the next 10 years, you’ll be able to order your germ-line edited grandchildren (reproductive cells). Currently, British scientists, out of fear of being accused as makers of Frankenstein, claim that the reason why they are driving this science fast is to improve the human quality of life by preventing diseases or curing them.
My thanks to Harry de Quetteville’s article, Gene Genies in the Telegraph Magazine, June 3 2017. He went to Francis Crick Institute, London, and spoke to its director, Nobel-Prize winning Sir Paul Nurse (68).
Francis Crick Institute is a modern custom-made giant concrete building that has taken 65,000 cubic metres of concrete. It opened in 2016 and is equipped with state-of-the-art facilities. It costs 650 million pounds to build. It has 1,250 scientists, across 12 floors, working in more than 80 laboratories.
The Institute is located near St Pancreas International Station in north London, with novelty shops, restaurants, and bars, including Europe’s longest Champagne bar. It’s next to King’s Cross Station which is the terminus for all trains that run to the north of Britain. From St Pancreas you can travel by high-speed Eurostar train to Paris, traversing the Channel underwater through Eurotunnel. First, the train travels over ground to Folkestone in Kent, the tunnel port, from where the Eurotunnel begins. It come out at Calais in France and whence by over ground to Paris Gare du Nord station. It takes 2 hours and 15 minutes though the actual tunnel crossing takes 35 minutes.
This piece is to appreciate the pioneering British spirit in genealogy that can be seen from James Watson and Francis Crick to begin with, who in 1953 walked into the Eagle pub in Cambridge and announced that they had ‘found the secret of life’ ie ‘the double-helix structure of DNA’. This was followed by the birth of Louise Brown, the first baby conceived by IVF technique in Oldham, England in 1976. You will also remember the first cloned sheep Dolly in Edinburgh in 1996.
Now, there are no international laws governing gene-editing. However, Britain has become the first country to authorise the use of Crispr-Cas9 in gene editing, a technique that makes the process of finding a specific location in a genome’s long thread. British scientists have now begun rewriting human genetic code, with potential ability to change human species forever.
Scientific revolution comes around every 50 years. I would imagine, in the next 50 years, human species might not be the one we know. All scientists have good intentions at heart. But all scientific inventions have negative values like atom bombs. Robert Oppenheimer exclaimed after the first atomic explosion: “Now I am become death, the destroyer of world.”
There can also be odd rogue scientist like the fictional Ernest Starvo Bloefeld, an atomic energy scientist in James Bond films. Predictions of science fiction writers like HG Wells often come true. Doctors are humane, but there can be doctor scoundrels. A British surgeon Paterson (59) has now been imprisoned for 15 years in May 2017 for carrying out completely unnecessary breast operations on suspected breast cancer patients in a period of 14 years “to earn extra money”.
Conjuring up fiction and non-fiction ideas, right at the beginning of this piece is an attempt to show that there are two sides on the bioengineering of human genome. For a start, according to Robin Lovell-Badge, a pioneer in embryo development research and adviser to the Human Fertilisation & Embryonic Authority (HFEA), UK, there is an ongoing trial of a mutation to a gene known as CCR5. This gene in its normal state produces a receptor protein on the surface of the white blood cells through which HIV can enter. If a person has a mutation to CCR5, however, HIV cannot enter and so these people don’t get Aids.
There are roughly about 37 trillion cells in our body. All of them except the cells in the hair and nails have a nucleus that contains our entire human genetic code or genome, which is a complete set of DNA. In general, each genome contains all of the information needed to build and maintain that organism eg a human being. It’s thus a compendium of DNA, genes, and chromosomes.
Human genome contains a complete set of nucleic acid “sequences” containing genetic instructions in three billion DNA molecule pairs, clumped together in 20,000 genes arrayed among 46 chromosomes. We know the famous Watson-Crick double helix of DNA. When a DNA has been chopped up, copied, chemically modified, and tagged with fluorescent dyes corresponding to the four different DNA bases, or ‘genetic letters’ they can be “read” by high-tech machines.
In the way we can scan a sequence of letters in a book, these machines can “read” a sequence of DNA bases from life’s chemical alphabet into the English alphabet that may look like eg: AGTCCGCGAATACAGCCTCGGT.
Gene editing or genome sequencing is figuring out the order of DNA nucleotides or bases in a genome’s normal order of As, Cs, Gs, and Ts that make up an organism’s DNA. The human genome is made up of 3 billion of these genetic letters. Unravelled, the human genome in a straight line will be taller than a human being, about two metres.
British researchers have already detailed the technique of gene-editing known as Crispr-cas9 that was invented in 2012 for finding a specific location in a genome’s long thread. It can cut it and discover new genetic information in simple and cheap ways. Crispr-Cas9 has the potential to modify not just an individual’s genome, but also can edit the genetic information the individual will pass to the offspring. This is the potential of altering the genetic make-up of future humanity, or to wipe out unwanted genetic diseases that are inherited from generation to generation.
Nicholas Luscombe, whose work focuses on gene regulation explains. In a normal body the process of cell division knows when to stop eg when you have a cut in your body it gets repaired and stops. In cancer, the cells go on dividing due to a fault in genetic instructions. It’s this understanding of why the process goes wrong, has the potential to modernise medicine.
By ‘sequencing’ a genome, future doctors as a routine, might be able to spot dangerous genetic variants or mutations, either at birth or acquired in the ageing process, and potentially use Crispr-Cas8 to edit them out. Dr Luscombe has already a genome sequencing kit for £149, which analyses parts of the purchaser’s genome and, apart from detecting amusing aspects of genetic heritage, such as what percentage of Neanderthal they might be, also does the important part of revealing genetic predisposition to some diseases such as Alzheimer’s.
The famous Hollywood actress Angelina Jolie could find out she had inherited a BRCA1-gene mutation that carries a high risk of developing breast cancer. So, she has had a double mastectomy. The medical dictum I remember as a student is ‘no head no headache’ ie you can’t have pain in the head if you have no head.
British National Health Service (NHS), the greatest institution where treatment is free for everybody, no matter how much it costs, is also moving to the forefront of patient care with ‘genomic medicine’. It’s looking to commission routine whole genome testing for patients for rare diseases and cancer, saving millions of lives and suffering. ‘Genomics England’ is an independent wing of o the NHS set up in 2012 at a cost of £300 million to sequence 100,000 whole genomes from NHS patients to detect mutant genes for cancers and other rare diseases.
As a pioneering work in November 2015, Layla Richards, a three-month old baby girl with a white mother and black father, became the first person to receive therapy to cure ‘incurable’ acute lymphoblastic leukaemia (cancer of white blood cells) at the Great Ormond Street Hospital, London.
When everything has failed to save her life, her parents agreed to treatment with genetically edited white blood cells. Dr Qasim, an immunologist at University College London, genetically edited white blood cells by removing two genes and customising them to target cancer cells without being attacked in turn by the body’s immune system. Now Layla is a healthy two-year-old girl, having completely cured with this genetically engineered treatment.
Another germline editing treatment is about Mitochondrial diseases that can now be cured by using healthy mitochondrial DNA from a donor. However, treatment of ‘mitochondrial depletion syndrome’, a rare disease (only 16 people known to have) and from which an 11-month-old baby boy Charlie Gard is on life supporting machine at Great Ormond Street Hospital, is drawing attention from President Trump and the Pope, as America has offered to try a new medicine.