Tag Archives: genetics

Ushering in the Era of Personalized Medicine

The FDA recently approved 10 of the personal-genomics company 23andMe’s screening tests for hereditary health risks and diseases, issuing a press release that reads: “These are the first direct-to-consumer tests…that provide information on an individual’s genetic predisposition to certain medical diseases or conditions.”

The Wall Street Journal reports that this step “may be the first shot in a health revolution,” allowing patients to make informed decisions about lifestyle choices, and assist healthcare professionals in their advice and discussions. This marks the first time that patients will not have to go through a physician or healthcare provider to receive information about genetic health risks or makeup.

The screening tests include one for Alzheimer’s, and another for a rare blood disorder. Companies like 23andMe and PatientsLikeMe are already developing new technologies and products so that Americans can further manage and monitor their health, studying databases that utilize information from electronic medical records, wearable devices, and patient surveys combined with their genetic codes. 23andMe has formed partnerships with various organizations in the disease research community, spearheading research that explores new potential genetic risk factors for chronic disease.

Embracing this kind of precision medicine will enable us to mine enormous amounts of data and information, in order to further enhance the health of patients across the globe, and possibly halt disease before it develops and progresses.

Human Gene Editing

The National Academy of Sciences, in collaboration with the National Academy of Medicine, has lent their support to a “once-unthinkable” proposition: modifying human embryos, in order to create genetic traits that can be transferred to future generations.

Notwithstanding the medical and scientific complications, human gene editing has historically posed an ethical dilemma, as scientists fear that techniques used to prevent hereditary and genetic disease might also be used to create specific physical traits, or enhance intelligence.

A special science advisory group has solely endorsed alternations that are designed to prevent babies from acquiring genes known to cause “serious diseases and disability,” and only when there is no “reasonable alternative.” This engineering might allow people to have children without fearing that they have passed on genetic traits for diseases and disabilities like Huntington’s and Tay-Sachs.

The advent of a specific gene-editing tool called Crispr-Cas9 has allowed researchers to alter, insert, and delete genetic material with rapidly increasing precision, and has spurred plans for experimental treatments of adult patients with conditions like cancer and blindness.

Yet opponents of this new technology argue that human gene line editing will lead to the engineering of traits like beauty, strength, intelligence—ultimately leading to the possibility of a disproportionate divide between those who can afford enhancements, and those who cannot.

There are also questions of safety and autonomy, in addition to social justice and moral concerns. Despite the precision of Crispr, its ‘off-target’ effects include cutting DNA at places it is not meant to—leading to the inadvertent creation of new complications. Furthermore, while the published report prohibited any alternations that resembled ‘enhancement,’ it is not clear where the line is drawn.

Nevertheless, it will likely be years before gene-editing techniques tested in animals can simultaneously work in humans. The Food and Drug Administration currently prohibits the allotment of any federal money to support research that results in genetically modified offspring. This groundbreaking step will likely only be considered and implemented after more research and studies, and only conducted under extremely tight restrictions.

Modern Medicine: Gene Therapy Revolutions

The technology of gene therapy has long been viewed as a pragmatic way in which to erase disease, by revising people’s DNA.

Gene therapy, as defined by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, is a treatment in which a kind of replacement gene is added and integrated into a person’s body—or a disease-causing gene is inactivated. The process involves the addition of new instructions to cells, via billions of viruses with correct DNA strands.

The procedure is complex, first tested in 1990 with an abundance of negative side effects. While the past two decades have seen immense progress, gene treatments run at exorbitantly expensive prices.

Yet scientists and biotechnology entrepreneurs have continued to work and funnel money and resources into gene therapy, and 2016 has seen further growth and development. Italian scientists at Milan’s San Raffaele Telethon Institute for Gene Therapy reported that they had cured 18 children of a rare, extremely debilitating immune deficiency disease—ADA-SCID—by removing the children’s bone marrow and adding a gene to make the ADA enzyme that their bodies lacked.

Moreover, although the revolutionary cancer treatment that uses gene engineering to reprogram immune cells is not always considered a form of gene therapy, this type of immunotherapy has been proven to destroy certain types of cancer.

There is an abundance of promising results through human tests and studies, and 2017 will likely be the year in which the FDA evaluates and assesses several gene therapies. These include a treatment for hereditary blindness; approval would be an enormous breakthrough moment for the biotech industry—and one of the most inventive and pioneering ways to fully eradicate disease.