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A new age of biology?

Genetic technology should be used for health treatments but not cosmetic changes such as eye or hair colour, a Royal Society survey of public opinion has found.

As Neils Bohr allegedly said, “It is hard to make predictions, especially about the future.”

Indeed, Lord Kelvin’s 1895 declaration that "heavier-than-air flying machines are impossible" tends to loom in scientists' minds when we are tempted to speculate about what technology might deliver.

However, there are times when the evidence is pretty clear. Developments in genetic technologies which have made them cheaper, quicker and easier to use could usher in a new age of biology.

We have been using conventional cross-breeding to select genetic variants of plants and animals for thousands of years.

Such selection by humans has resulted in the same species - dogs - being as variable as wolfhounds, terriers, greyhounds and Chihuahuas.

Similarly, cabbage, kale, kohlrabi, broccoli, cauliflower and brussels sprouts have all been bred from the same original plant.

However, by genetic technologies I mean the use of the tools of modern molecular biology to understand, make or adapt the genetic material in all living things.

Cure incurable diseases

Some genetic technologies have been with us a long time.

The insulin that keeps people with diabetes alive is a GM medicine. GM plants received a mixed reception from the public, but they now cover over a tenth of the world’s arable land.

Recently we had the case of baby Layla Richards who underwent an experimental gene therapy treatment at Great Ormond Street Hospital that cured her leukaemia.

To some extent the future is already with us.

As well as the examples above, researchers are working on ways to cure otherwise incurable diseases such as muscular dystrophy, on new treatments for other life-threatening diseases like leukaemia or conditions like arthritis.

It may soon become possible to correct a genetic disorder and prevent it from being passed on to future generations.

Potential downsides

A potentially very powerful method is the possible use of gene drives to modify organisms like mosquitoes to prevent them from spreading diseases such as malaria and the Zika virus.

Beyond human health, genetic technology could be used to remove invasive species.

New Zealand is already looking at this as a way of protecting native species in a country where a quarter of the unique bird species have been driven to extinction by invasive predators such as rats and possums.

When it comes to food, researchers are looking at genetic technologies to increase food production, for example modifying farmed salmon to require less food to grow, or preventing diseases that destroy crops. Researchers are also looking at ways to make food more nutritious and to develop crops that need less fertiliser or pesticides.

Scientists are exploring these possibilities but it is one thing to figure out what we can do and something else entirely to decide what we should do.

For those technologies that do work we need to know what the potential downsides might be and then it is up to all of us to decide whether any risks are worth taking, relative to the potential benefits.

In the case of Baby Layla there can be no guarantees about what the future may bring but all avenues of treatment had been exhausted.

It was an experimental treatment rather than part of a trial but it was a life and death situation and Layla is alive.

Ethical questions

There are many situations where people have legitimate concerns.

If we use gene drives to try and control disease, there are risks in the broader ecological consequences of reducing or even eliminating a species.

There is also a question of the ethics of eliminating one species for the benefit of another – ourselves.

With the genetic modification of plants, there are questions about who controls the technology.

These are questions that have a more general application and include technologies such as artificial intelligence and who owns our data but a lot of the public opposition to GM plants may be tied into the fact that the technology is often associated with big business.

For all the potential benefits that genetic technologies could have for human health there are also a host of ethical questions that need to be addressed.

There are questions about how far we should take it.

There is a great difference between altering a gene to remove the risk of inheriting a potentially fatal heart defect and altering a gene to change someone’s eye colour.

Would it be right to use genetics to make someone faster, stronger or smarter?

There are questions about who controls these decisions.

Would new treatments just be available to the richest people in society?

These are only a small number of the challenges and concerns people have and that is why we need to have a well-informed discussion.

We also live in a world where we face challenges that do not respect national borders but where priorities can vary greatly.

I grew up in India where many people do not have enough food to eat and where cancer survival rates are among the world’s worst.

But I have lived most of my life in the UK and US where priorities are different.

All of these perspectives need to be part of the conversation.

Decisions about how the technology should be developed should not be made by a small group of people, because the application of these technologies will affect us all.

If my prediction does not go the way of Lord Kelvin’s and we are on the verge of a new age of biology, it is one we need to go into with our eyes wide open so that science and technology – from which we have benefited so much from over the years – can continue to contribute to safer, healthier and happier lives.