Everyone wants to be a superhero. Incredible feats of strength, intelligence, or resilience have painted our screens for decades, and these characters have become so ingrained in popular culture, they are almost certainly here to stay.
Something that has become synonymous with superhero stories is genetic experiments. A catch-all, foolproof method of some everyday civilian becoming a supernatural crime-fighter – that every film director loves to shoehorn in – is through some sort of genetic manipulation, often to the dismay of real geneticists (because, although it hurts to say, genetics just don’t work like that).
However, a professor from Stanford strongly believes that superheroes could be a thing of the near future, albeit not in the traditional sense. In a recent article published by South West News Services and reported by Study Finds, Professor Euan Ashley claims it won’t be long before a single jab will be developed that could protect against a wide variety of deadly disorders, from Alzheimer’s to heart disease, to massively improve life expectancy and maintain health into older age.
He also claims this vaccine would be developed from the “ideal” cells of Olympic athletes, and those that are genetically less likely to develop disease.
“Genomic medicine has been promised for decades, but thanks to advances in the field we are now reaching the stage where that promise is set to become reality, ushering in a bold new era of medical treatments,” Ashley says in a statement to SWNS.
“We will soon have the genetic engineering tools to repair, tweak and improve DNA associated with a host of life-limiting diseases, to make us all less prone to developing these illnesses across our lifetimes. This isn’t, of course, to say that we can make people live forever, and we can’t guarantee life expectancy will increase, but it is likely premature deaths could be avoided in many cases.”
Such a jab could be available within 10–15 years, Ashley suggests. It is certainly an interesting idea, and Professor Ashley is an accomplished geneticist who knows the field well. But does the science back up these astronomically bold claims?
Can genetic editing create superheroes now?
Professor Ashley is referring to significant advancements in genetic editing, namely CRISPR technologies. These are often single-shot treatments involving the delivery of DNA sequences to a target site (often inside harmless viruses), where it alters the genetic code to fix a mutated region, add a coding sequence to restore the function of a gene, or delete an aberrant section that is causing disease. In recent tests, CRISPR really is exceeding all expectations – just last week results from a trial of CRISPR for a fatal liver disease show extremely promising preliminary results in deactivating a mutated gene.
But such a vaccine is another situation entirely. For one, CRISPR is incredibly specific – it targets one region within the genome, changes it, and congratulates itself on a job well done. To create a vaccine that effectively protects against a variety of complex disorders, it would require perhaps hundreds of separate treatments, targeting separate areas of the genome, combined into one shot. This would be incredibly difficult and far beyond our current capabilities (let alone expensive). There are innovative new CRISPR technologies able to alter multiple regions at once, but they are in their infancy and yet to be validated thoroughly.
Secondly, the diseases Ashley is citing are considered complex diseases. In genetic terms, this means they have a variety of causes, with some cases being mainly hereditary, some being mainly environmental, and some being a mixture of both. This means creating a single ‘cure’ for any of them is likely impossible, and that is if scientists already knew the genetic dispositions that underly their onset (which they don’t). Large-scale genetic studies (called Genome-Wide Association Studies, or GWAS) are constantly underway trying to pin down a causal gene or set of risk factors for Alzheimer’s, heart disease, and more, but they often return hundreds of associated genes to sift through.
The idea, then, that a vaccine could be developed from an “ideal” human and placed in the average civilian to protect them from disease is quite outlandish with our current understanding. A human genome is vast, ever-changing, and insanely complex, and to change such a huge array of genes into their most riskless form (even if we knew what that is) would be a mammoth undertaking.
Is it impossible? Not necessarily. Genetic medicine has exploded in recent years, and the idea of alleviating something as tough as sickle-cell anemia might have been scoffed at 5 years ago, yet the foundations have been laid for that. But these claims are based on an exponential improvement in our understanding of genetics as a whole, and 10–15 years is likely far too ambitious.