Harvard Professor George Church and the future of genomics

George Church, is a genetics professor at Harvard Medical School. Photo: Wendy Maeda, Globe Staff
George Church, is a genetics professor at Harvard Medical School. Photo: Wendy Maeda, Globe Staff

George Church is the Robert Winthrop professor of Genetics at Harvard Medical School, and has the largest research lab at Harvard University.

He sat down to discuss his efforts to bring back the wooly mammoth, why his Personal Genome Project will advance genetic research, and why he thinks we should all get our genome sequenced.

What drew you to genomics?

My dad was a physician, and from a very early age, I was interested in the technology he used for his work. A computer seemed really interesting. My friends and brothers would take things apart, while I would try to build little analog computers and models.

I was always drawn to anything that involved mixing biology, computers, and math. It took me a while to find the mix.

What excites you the most about your work?

The malaria work we are doing with mosquitoes and gene therapy. With gene therapy, essentially we are able to reverse rare diseases that have a genetic component by putting in a copy of the gene that’s missing. In principle, if you could get it at the right stage in development, you can reverse things that cause blindness, that cause blood disorders, and so forth.

Gene therapy could impact almost every aspect of health. And it’s not just about rare diseases. Take aging — we all have aging as a genetic disease. Cancer also has genetic components, and the reason that some animals die in less than two years and some of them go on to live 200 years is genetic.

You started the Personal Genome Project. What is it?

The Personal Genome Project [or PGP] is the only source in the world that we know of where you can get open access to genes, environments, and traits for human beings. The PGP enables all kinds of studies: to share stem cells, to test out gene therapies, test out drugs, and test out a lot of ideas in these shared resources.

Is the project the Gutenberg printing press of genomics?

We’re analogous to Wikipedia. There was a time where most encyclopedic type information, even post-Gutenberg, was in the silos of proprietary books, and then Wikipedia completely changed that.

Do you want everyone sequenced?

I think everybody should get sequenced if it’s accompanied by a pretty simple preliminary test that shows that you’re not going to freak out no matter what you see, and that you’re going to follow up calmly.

The point is not to know how you’re going to die. The point is to know how you can avoid premature death, premature disability, and premature senescence.

Do you think most people can handle it?

With a little education, yes. Today, as a society, we’re handling lots of medical information already.

Should we be wary of insurers having this information?

In the United States, it’s against the law for [insurers] to charge you more based on your genetics. The Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act of 2008 made it illegal for employers and health care insurance companies to discriminate.

I would say we always worry. Worry is a good thing. You should worry about unintended consequences, you should worry about technologies, you should worry about privacy. Know the facts.

You mentioned you are trying to wipe out malaria. Can you explain?

A huge environmental risk, especially in developing nations, is infectious disease. Malaria is one of the big ones with 600,000 people per year dying [from its effects]. One of the new things that we’ve just started working on is called CRISPR Gene Drives, although its roots are back to 2003 with Austin Burt who was an evolutionary geneticist from the UK.

Basically, you can put a payload into a mosquito that says, “This mosquito is resistant to malaria” and every time it mates, all of its offspring will have the same position of that same chromosome, and it spreads exponentially through the population starting with one designed mosquito. It basically does it itself, but there are a lot of discussions we have to have about how to do this safely and how to test it in the laboratory. I think that’s going to be a pretty awesome.

How far away are we from this?

We’ve done the first Gene Drive test in yeast, not in mosquitoes. It works great. Very close to 100 percent get the gene drive. We’ve begun in mosquitoes.

And how about the wooly mammoth? Are you bringing it back?

We are working on mammals, or at least taking wooly mammoth genes. We are introducing them into elephants and testing ideas that come out of the genome sequence. Rather than just staring at them and saying, “We think this is going on,” we can test them in cells and in tissues, and if that looks interesting and safe and effective, then we can move it over to elephants.

How far away are you from that?

We could be within a year or two before making a decision as to whether we want to test it in animals.

Do you want to create a human from scratch?

It depends what you mean by “create.” I think I wouldn’t mind changing myself, or allowing other people to change themselves, radically. Each of these things has to be vetted, but if you are cautious and you don’t make something that’s deleterious to the individual or to society, it works. The more radical it is, the more discussion we will have to have before we approve it, and the more tests we will have to do in the laboratory environment that are focused on safety and effectiveness.

Heidi Legg interviews visionaries and thinkers around us at TheEditorial.com 
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