Gene editing and gene therapy are a big deal in medicine right now, and for good reason. The idea that we could side-step the herculean struggles and steep costs of debilitating diseases simply by “replacing” a defective gene is seductive. It’s clean and simple, and tantalizingly dangles the prospect of mass-curing previously intractable diseases in one fell swoop.
It’s no surprise, then, that recent news articles on the subject have highlighted only the amazing potential of this practice: “Researchers have shown that it’s possible to eliminate facial muscular dystrophy using a newer editing technique… to replace the offending gene and ‘turn off’ the condition.” Another article lauded doctors for using gene editing to battle a drug-resistant form of leukemia.
Unfortunately, as anyone who spends any time digging around in the science of genetics (our genes) and epigenetics (how external forces shape the expression of our genes) will be quick to tell you, real life is rarely simple or clean.
When researchers set out to map the human genome, they were stunned to find far fewer genes in our DNA than they’d anticipated. Many had initially expected to discover one gene for every trait; what they found instead was that while some traits are directly linked to genes, many more actually result from the interaction between multiple genes.
Have you guessed where this is going?
Tampering with or replacing one gene to “correct” a specific condition doesn’t just impact that one condition – it can have serious, unpredictable and far-reaching consequences for other traits and conditions too.
This is the Monkey Paw Principle. If you got out of high school without reading The Monkey’s Paw by W.W. Jacobs, congratulations! It is the tragic tale of a man who acquires a “magical” wish-granting monkey paw; too late he discovers that his new-found power comes with a nasty catch. It is only when his wish for a large sum of money is granted in through an insurance payoff at the sudden, violent death of his son that he realizes that every granted wish will come at a terrible price.
In much the same way, replacing a gene to create a “wished for” result – such as curing facial muscular dystrophy in the example above – may end up costing us dearly when it warps a different trait determined by the interaction between the replaced gene with another gene. We simply don’t know enough about these vast and complex interactions to completely manage such replacements or edits in a comprehensively safe and controlled way. (If such a thing is even possible!)
Which brings us to the Toasted Toads part. One of my favorite wizards, the powerful and ever-mischievous Zeddicus Zu’l Zorander (Zedd), uses the phrase “true as toasted toads” to indicate that he’s being genuinely serious about something important. Among Zedd’s no-nonsense truths was The Wizard’s Second Rule: “The greatest harm can result from the best intentions.” I don’t know you about you, but I think that pretty much sums up the current gene-editing situation perfectly.
So here’s the Toasted Toads Truth, guys: until our understanding and technology get far more advanced, gene editing is playing with fire. Does that mean it’s never appropriate? No. Everything in life comes with risk, and for some conditions the benefits of gene editing may outweigh the potential negative consequences.
Depressing English Lit, amphibians, and exceptions-to-the-rule aside, it’s not all bad news. You can positively impact the epigenetic expression of your genes through everyday diet and lifestyle changes! Simple changes like reducing and removing the toxins from your home/office, eating a clean diet rich in green veggies and good fats, and lifestyle choices like cultivating healthy ways to manage stress can change how your genes express themselves for the better – without the big, scary risks associated with gene editing!
Are these things enough, in and of themselves, to guarantee you’ll never struggle with major disease or to reverse something like leukemia? Probably not. But they can put you (and your descendants!) squarely on the path towards vibrant health and strong disease resistance. And that is the Toasted Toads Truth*.
Are you familiar with the idea of gene editing? Does it strike you as too-good-to-be-true, or do you think I’m just paranoid?
*No toads were harmed in the writing of this post.
PS – Today’s topic was a little heavy – check out Rooster Teeth’s hysterical video spin-off of the classic Monkey Paw question here for some comic relief.