Editor’s note: This is the fourth article in a series examining genetic engineering’s impact on people’s lives. It addresses genetic-engineering advances that are at the dawn of a revolution in medicine. The final article in this series will address synthetic biology and other novel applications.
Genetic engineering is most often linked to foods we eat and crops we grow. What’s not widely known is that it also plays a critical role in the development and production of drugs that improve the quality of life for people with chronic diseases.
Almost all the insulin produced for diabetics is made through a process involving genetic engineering. Treatments for infertility, hemophilia, blood clotting and dwarfism also depend heavily on genetic engineering, as does immunotherapy for developing cancer treatments.
An article in the “New Republic” entitled, “GMOs Could Save Your Life – They Might Have Already,” highlighted the importance of genetic engineering in the manufacturing of essential medicines.
“Most modern biomedical advances, especially the vaccines used to eradicate disease and protect against pandemics … rely on the same molecular-biology tools that are used to create genetically modified organisms … Consumers who scrupulously avoid genetically modified foods might be surprised to know that lots of drugs and vaccines they rely on are the product of genetically modified organisms … In 2014, 10 of the top-25 best-selling drugs were biologics – drugs comprised of recombinantly produced proteins – including blockbuster treatments for arthritis, cancer and diabetes. Of the 10 vaccines that the Center for Disease Control and Prevention recommends for newborns, three are available in recombinant form.”
One of the most promising uses of genetic engineering in medicine is in the development of vaccines. The Human Papilloma Virus vaccine was developed through a process involving genetic engineering. It protects against various cancers – cervical, anal, throat and vaginal – that are caused by the virus.
In December 2015 the U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved the first flu vaccine created with genetically modified materials. Work is being conducted on developing a genetically modified malaria vaccine and a genetically modified Hepatitis B oral vaccine. During the 2014 Ebola outbreak in West Africa, a vaccine was developed by genetically modifying the tobacco plant. In June 2016 a vaccine was approved for human trials against the Zika virus. Trials on a genetically engineered AIDs vaccine began in southern Africa in November 2017, and will last until 2021.
In July 2017 the U.S. Food and Drug Administration recommended the first genetically engineered treatment for patients with leukemia. The FDA recommended approval of a treatment developed by Novartis that “genetically alters a patient’s own cells to fight cancer, transforming them into what scientists call a living drug that powerfully bolsters the immune system to shut down the disease.”
In October the FDA approved a second gene-editing treatment for adults with an aggressive form of non-Hodgkin lymphoma. In trials for the treatment developed by Kite Pharmaceutical, 54 percent of those participating had complete remission and 28 percent had partial remission.
In December 2017 the FDA approved the first gene therapy for an inherited disease. Developed by Spark Therapeutics, it is designed to treat a rare condition that causes a progressive form of blindness starting in childhood. In a study involving 29 patients ranging in age from 4 to 44, the treatment was demonstrated to be safe and effective with more than 90 percent of those participating showing at least some signs of improvement.
Scientists at the Oregon Health and Science University in collaboration with colleagues in California, China and Korea were the first to edit genes of human embryos, a process that could one day help prevent parents from passing along inherited diseases to their children. The experiment involved repairing dozens of embryos, fixing a mutation which causes a heart condition that could lead to death later in life.
In August 2017 the journal “Nature” reported the results of an experiment in which researchers at Harvard and eGenesis, a private company, created gene-edited piglets that didn’t contain viruses that might cause diseases in humans. That might make it possible one day to transplant livers, hearts and other organs from pigs into humans.
Scientists are working on producing vaccines in crops via genetic engineering. That would save the cost of transporting and refrigerating vaccines in developing countries.
“New Scientist” has noted the potential benefits from gene editing are immeasurable.
Promising results from animal studies targeting the liver, muscles and the brain suggest the CRISPR genome-editing method could revolutionize medicine, allowing us to treat or even cure a huge range of disorders.
The preceding article is published with permission from the Genetic Literacy Project. Visit geneticliteracyproject.org for more information.
Steven Cerier is a freelance writer and consultant in the fields of international and domestic economics. He writes analyses on economic, political, financial, currency, trade and energy developments. He is a frequent contributor to the Genetic Literacy Project.