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A San Francisco Scientist’s Genetic Research Renews Ancient Hope for a Way to Slow Aging

If you could bottle, time, health and a long life in a single pill, most people would probably take it — and that’s what scientists are betting on as they search for a Fountain of Youth elixir. Molecular biologist Cynthia Kenyon believes she may be on the edge of such a pill, as does a friend of hers, MIT biologist Leonard Guarente, Smithsonian Magazine reports. The two co-founded a biotechnology company studying ways to treat age-related diseases and slow down the process of aging. One focus of their research is gene editing, which shows promising results with worms. Critics say human life span “is not a simple matter of genetics.”

Intriguing as Kenyon’s and Guarente’s research is, the skeptics are correct: There are very real dangers to gene editing that are just now coming to light. In fact, scientists working with gene-edited mice found numerous unintended mutations that occurred in the process, including more than 100 additional deletions and insertions and more than 1,500 single-nucleotide mutations.

What’s concerning is that while some of the mutations are likely benign, each mutation has the potential to lead to serious unintended and unexpected consequences — and that could have real, negative, results when tinkering with human life. This technology is called CRISPR, short for Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeat, and it’s taken the medical world by storm, showing potential for treating diseases ranging from cancer to type 2 diabetes.

CRISPR makes three categories of DNA alterations possible: embryonic modification to eliminate genetic disease; alterations to protect against future disease; and genetic enhancement of human form and function. One result of this is the possibility of creating “designer” babies that result in human embryos that have inherited diseases “weeded out.”

And while that sounds exciting, too, are designer babies really what we want? Clearly, once we start talking about human subjects, the ramifications to humanity of discounting those with unintended anomalies as "defective" and tossing them out of the study could be severe — far more severe than giving the go-ahead to transgenic plants that may be harmful if you eat them in significant amounts over a lifetime.
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