A Person's Genes Were Edited Inside Their Body for the First Time

Wednesday, 15 November 2017 - 7:44PM
Technology
Genetic Engineering
Wednesday, 15 November 2017 - 7:44PM
A Person's Genes Were Edited Inside Their Body for the First Time
Pixabay
We all have something we don't like about our bodies. Maybe you feel you're too short, or you wish you were less hairy, or you've always had a dream to possess the powers of a particular X-Men character. Alas, your genetics control all of these attributes, and they won't allow you to have any fun.

A solution may be at hand - although it's probably not going to be used on vanity projects any time soon. A lot of progress has been made in the field of gene therapy in recent years, as scientists learn to edit our bodies' genetic codes in the hopes of curing genetic diseases by simply fixing deformed or otherwise broken parts of a person's fundamental genetic assembly instructions.

While this has been attempted on animal test subjects in the past, it's not been tried on a human - until now.

Brian Madeux has Hunter syndrome, a rare genetic disease that causes developmental delays, physical deformities, and intense pressure on the body's organs. This week, in an operation using a zinc finger nuclease gene editing device, doctors in California were able to repair Madeux's genetic code to alleviate his symptoms, according to AP News.

This isn't a full cure for the disease, but with any luck, it should prevent Madeux from requiring weekly enzyme care just to stop his body from rapidly aging and breaking down. If the operation proves a success, Madeux will no longer experience a lot of the symptoms of this rare disease to the degree that he did before being experimented upon.



The technology that pulled this off is pretty impressive - it involves a reprogrammed virus that attaches itself to Madeux's cells to overwrite their genetic code. All viruses mess with our genes, landing on individual cells and reprogramming them to produce more copies of the virus itself until the cell bursts and yet more viruses are unleashed upon the body (yup, viruses essentially turn your cells into zombie cells). This new technology makes sure that the virus is doing something meaningful, fixing the kinks in Madeux's genetic code so that he can live a more normal life.

If this experiment does prove a success, it could potentially revolutionize modern medicine. Plenty of genetic conditions or even predispositions can be fixed before they even cause discomfort to sufferers, meaning that plenty of lives can be spared, and many more can see their quality of life improved.

The question is how far this process of gene fixing should be allowed to go. Right now, this technology is only really equipped to fix notable broken parts of patients' DNA, but in theory, it could ultimately be used to fix relatively mundane issues like allergies or intolerances. There are plenty of people out there who'd love to be able to enjoy summer without getting the sniffles, or eat wheat without bloating.

But why stop there? Why not speed up a person's metabolism, reverse male pattern baldness, or reduce the pain of period cramps? Why not help people to dramatically alter their genetic code in order to be smarter, more attractive, and, while we're at it, able to leap tall buildings in a single bound, or see a whole new spectrum of colors that are currently invisible to most people?

We're a long way from the point where this technology can be used to make super soldiers, but there's no doubt that once gene therapy becomes a more widespread treatment for genetic disorders, people will start requesting the opportunity to make more cosmetic or frivolous changes to themselves.

Perhaps that's just where humanity is heading, and the oft-talked about designer babies are an inevitability. Either way, we're all going to need to have some serious conversations in the near future about how far people should be allowed to go to get rid of their own perceived flaws and imperfections.
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