Genetic Surgery?

DNA vaccine and Gene therapy techniques are si...

DNA vaccine and Gene therapy techniques are similar. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Will genetic surgery ever be possible? Could a genetic engineer take a faulty gene or two that were causing your illness, cut them out and swap in a good copy?

As a science fiction novelist writing about characters eager to overcome death, I’ve been watching gene therapy, trying to snap it up and use it in a plot. The traditional way to introduce genes into an organism, is to have a virus do it for you. But make sure the virus’s genetic material is removed, since Ebola sans DNA has been used to insert desired genes into test animals. That could go horribly wrong in human trials, but there’s another drawback to the use of viruses as a gene therapy. While it’s true beneficial genes can be transferred through viruses, they cannot cut out faulty sequences and replace them with the right ones.

Diagram of the possible mechanism for CRISPR By James atmos (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)], via Wikimedia Commons

Diagram of the possible mechanism for CRISPR
By James atmos (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

That’s where some new technologies come in. CRISPR stands for Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats. I’ve attached a link to an article about it and how Editas, a new bioengineering firm is hoping the technology will be able to remove damaged copies of a gene so that the remaining copies might take over. CRISPR treatments involve an ezyme called Cas9 that some bacteria use to identify and destroy foreign DNA. Researchers believe they are close to being able to target almost any gene that needs to be cut. The downside? Currently, Cas9 has been known to strike some untargeted gene sequences and researchers still have to find a way to splice in something new if there is not a functioning copy to replace the problem sequence.

Another technology, Zinc-Finger Nucleases, are even closer being the first gene therapy products to gain FDA approval. As a treatment, it too uses enzymes that snip and disable portions of genes. Though researchers believe Zinc-Finger Nucleases are harder to customize, this technology has been around longer and they’ve had some success dismantling portions of the HIV virus so it cannot enter immune system cells.  Even this advanced technology however, does not insert any genes into the cells, so if anti-aging genes are nailed down in the near future, they cannot currently be swapped into your cells.

I imagine as knowledge of how and why we age advances, we might find genes most active in causing aging, or parts of genes that are damaged with age. Imagine what would happen if we could cut out a mutated cancerous gene and replace it with a normal one? I almost feel I should finish my novel quickly, if the perfect gene therapy is created, there won’t be much to write about the fight against aging and age-related diseases.

Then again, what if people use the technology not to cure disease or reduce the ravages of aging, but to enhance traits, or give humans new traits altogether? I imagine science fiction writers will always have something to write about, no matter what technology brings.

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