sought and found biological parents or relatives through
at-home DNA tests, that doesn’t always lead to happiness:
numerous online forums attest to unwelcome discoveries,
from men learning their children were not their biological
offspring to people startled to hear of half-siblings whose
existence they’d had no reason to suspect. Users of 23andMe
and AncestryDNA are cautioned about this risk of unanticipated information and are offered the opportunity to opt in
or out of learning about close genetic matches. Both companies also train their customer service representatives in
ways to communicate with clients who are disturbed after
receiving unexpected news.
In 2011, NASA named Gattaca as the most scientifically
plausible science fiction film to date. Starring Ethan Hawke
and Uma Thurman, the futuristic thriller (shot in part at the
Marin County Civic Center) depicts a world where genetic
engineering is used to perfect the human species. Hawke’s
character dreams of space travel, but his genetically inferior status forbids it; undeterred, he buys the genes of a
laboratory-engineered individual, takes on that person’s
DNA identity and joins the space program.
Gattaca was released in 1997, but it took the federal government more than a decade to catch up with its
topic. In 2008 Congress passed the Genetic Information
Nondiscrimination Act, known as GINA. It bans use of
genetic information in health insurance applications, preventing insurers from denying coverage or charging higher
premiums based on someone’s genetic predisposition
for someday developing a disease. The law also prohibits
employers from using genetic information in making hiring,
firing or other personnel decisions.
Still, a bill introduced in Congress could undermine
those protections. House Resolution 1313 would let
employers offer substantial health insurance discounts to
employees who participate in a company-run wellness program that may include genetic screening; the law would let
employers charge higher premiums to employees who opt
out. In December 2017 the bill was brought to the House
floor without committee review but hasn’t progressed since.
THE FUTURE IS NOW
Meanwhile, the future of genetics is looking more sci-fi than
ever. This past November, Chinese scientist He Jiankui
prompted a global outcry when he announced he’d success-
fully altered t wo babies’ genetic code by using a gene-editing
technology called CRISPR. His claim has been met with
skepticism, and the scientific community unequivocally
condemned Jiankui; the Chinese government suspended his
research, and in December he was reportedly being seques-
tered under guard.
But legitimate gene-editing research is happening in our
own backyard. “There are a number of labs here that are
using the CRISPR technology,” says Kris Rebillot, director of communications at the Buck Institute for Research
on Aging in Novato. “The Ellerby Lab is one key lab that’s
working on Huntington’s disease and they’re trying to do
gene replacement therapy.” CRISPR, genomics, and deriving
stem cells from patients are just some of the technologies
our researchers are using to learn more about the mechanisms of Huntington’s, Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and similar
age-related neurodegenerative disease.
“There is the idea is that we all have two different ages,”
says Eric Verdin, president and CEO at the Buck. “One, the
chronological age, is how many years you have lived, and two,
the biological age, is based on molecular and cellular health,”
or more specifically, “Are you like the average population,
or have you aged faster or slower?” Blood samples can help
provide answers, though the research is still experimental.
“We don’t really fully know what to do with these numbers,”
Verdin says, “and it’s part of a whole change in the field of aging
where we are trying to measure precisely how do people age.”
“The basic research of aging has been going on for close to
30 years, and we’re right at that transition where all of these
discoveries are starting to be tested,” Verdin says. “There
are a number of drugs that we know now increase health
span and life span in animal models, and some of those are
actually moving into the clinic as we speak. I would predict,”
he adds, “that within 10 years we will have two drugs in the
market that will be fighting the aging process.”
One of those drugs under development, now in its first
phase of clinical trials, was incubated at the Buck, where the
ultimate vision, Verdin says, centers on helping people “live
better longer and live more gracefully and without diseases.
Right now we associate aging with chronic disease, chronic
conditions,” he says. “It doesn’t have to be this way.” So could
a map to the fountain of youth be located inside each of us?
If so, it’s for a quest that’s still underway. m
IN 2018 WE CAN LOOK AT YOUR GUT AND GIVE YOU DATA
ON IT, BUT THE RESEARCH ON WHAT YOU CAN ACTUALLY DO
WITH THOSE RESULTS ISN’T ACTUALLY THERE.