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Genetic Technologies: Surrounded by Scary Myths but Fighting Real Threats

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Posted May 21, 2019

Genetics is stirring up more controversy than almost any other modern science. Ever since gene editing techniques emerged their moral permissibility has been a subject of heated debate worldwide. Mass media have been chilling their audiences’ blood with stories about unpredictable consequences of genetic meddling. Politicians and activists in some countries are calling for a ban on genetically modified organisms. The public is discussing the ethics of tampering with human DNA.

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Genetic Technologies as Fast-Growing International Market

Despite controversies and an occasional scandal, genetic research is steaming ahead, with investment in genetic technologies accelerating. International consultancies expect to see a $10 bln market for CRISPR solutions alone by 2027 (CRISPR is a highly accurate genome editing tool).

In Russia, innovative genetic research falls within the purview of the Federal Research Program for Developing Genetic Technologies over 2019-2027. According to the Russian Ministry of Science and Higher Education, the program mainly seeks to ensure, first, that Russian scientists produce and implement research outcomes necessary for devising genetic technologies, including gene editing, and, second, that the country reduces its critically high dependence on foreign genetic and biological databases, specialist software and instruments.

What makes the authorities so keen on a rapid development of genetic technologies is the wide range of their possible applications. The first that comes to mind is, naturally, human genome editing with its pageant of horrors conjured up by science-fiction writers. Reality is certainly much less alarming though at times no less fantastic than fiction. Genetic research has been put to the task of devising biomedicines, diagnostic systems and immunobiological drugs for the public healthcare sector, developing biotechnologies for agriculture and industry and improving procedures and controls designed to prevent the occurrence of biological emergencies.

According to Pavel Volchkov, head of the Genome Engineering Laboratory at the Moscow Institute of Physics and Technology (MIPT), stresses that genetic science is taking a step outside laboratories where ‘white-coated boffins do things to stuff in test tubes’ into the field of big data analysis and treatment outcome prediction.

In the next five years, Pavel Volchkov would like to see five strong genetic engineering companies emerge in Russia and make headway in the international market to show other Russian players just how big and lucrative it is. He also hopes that the industry will attract private investors once the rules of the game have been clarified.

Combating Obesity and Diabetes with Genetic Tools

While the Program for Developing Genetic Technologies is yet to be launched, another relevant top-priority initiative, the National Project for Science, is well underway. It provides, among other things, for establishing three world-class genome research centers by 2020.

Among those who are spearheading genetic research in Russia are universities that participate in Project 5-100, a government-run program designed to make this country’s leading higher education providers more competitive globally.

As part of Project 5-100, Sechenov University has set up a laboratory for producing gene-based vaccines and another for clinical and genomic bioinformatics studies, Lobachevsky University (UNN) has established a general and medical genetics department (in operation since February 2018), while Siberian Federal University (SFU) has launched a forest genomics laboratory.

Geneticists from Project 5-100 universities are involved in a number of cutting-edge efforts. In addition to designing a new generation of vaccines, they are working to stop the spread of obesity and type 2 diabetes among adults and children. The WHO Regional Office for Europe reports that the incidence of obesity in many European countries has tripled since the 1980s. In some, one in every three children at the age of 11 is overweight or obese.

Here, an important point is raised by Andrey Glotov, research professor at Immanuel Kant Baltic Federal University (IKBFU), who also heads the Biocollection Department of the D. O. Ott Research Institute of Obstetrics and Gynecology and a biobanking and genome medicine laboratory at St Petersburg University. He notes that while it would be tempting to link the increase in primary diabetes cases in those regions where they used to be below a country’s average to the presence of certain gene alleles, in reality, it is highly improbable that such genetic shifts could have occurred in the space of a few decades.

Changes in dietary habits and the microbiota, or the community of gastrointestinal bacteria, are much more likely to have been the real cause. In fact, there is an overwhelming body of evidence to suggest that microbiome shifts make humans of all ages, including children, more susceptible to obesity.

Andrey Glotov therefore believes that genetic defects are best corrected via genetically appropriate adjustments to the diet rather than through genetic editing or gene therapy. An analysis of paired genome-microbiome data would help allocate individuals to risk groups and personalize diets. Consequently, Professor Glotov’s IKBFU team are focusing on microbiotas, while their colleagues elsewhere are studying the genetic makeup of patients with diabetes. They will then pool their data and use their combined knowledge to correct patients’ diets. Eventually, they expect to bring a producer of host-derived probiotics into the project. For people who had their gut microbiota samples taken at an early age and preserved in biobanks, host-derived probiotics will be designed, if needed, to restore their intestinal flora to its original state.

Andrey Glotov thinks that genetic science is far enough advanced to enable us to avert diabetes in predisposed subjects who are not obese; produce medical guidelines to prevent its development in those who are; and greatly improve the quality of life in patients already diagnosed with diabetes.

Cancer prevention and therapy is another area to which Project 5-100 university geneticists are making a solid contribution. The Functional Genomics Laboratory set up by Kazan Federal University (KFU) in conjunction with Japan’s research giant RIKEN focuses on biomedical investigation into cancer pathogenesis and pharmacogenetics (a study of how genetic factors influence an individual’s response to drugs) as the scientists seek to develop innovative diagnostic solutions that would help optimize disease management.

Harnessing Genetics to Resurrect Mammoths and Render Bugs Harmless

Early in 2018, researchers from 18 countries set up a working group called Biodiversity for Survival via Biomedicine (Bio2Bio) to study and preserve Earth’s biodiversity. One of its leaders, Alexander Kagansky, who heads the Center for Genomic and Regenerative Medicine at Far Eastern University (FEFU), remarked at the time that over the past 40 years more than half of our planet’s fungal, plant and animal species had become extinct.

But can geneticists really and truly save endangered species, let alone bring back to life those that have died out? At least, they appear to be seriously considering it, to judge by the words of George Church, a Harvard University professor famous not only for his pioneering work on direct DNA sequencing but also for an ambitious project to resurrect the woolly mammoth.

Alexander Kagansky describes the woolly mammoth revival project as a worthwhile example of peaceful scientific cooperation that has brought together leading theorists and researchers from around the world. The project should raise the public profile of genetic research and science in general, as well as support the humanity’s belief that extinct species can yet be restored.

On another note, he claims that genetics already has the tools to help eradicate such diseases as encephalitis or Lyme borreliosis, so that a pleasant countryside ramble would no longer put one at risk of death or disability from tick bite infections.

Geneticists to Help Meet Global Challenges

These days, there is no Russian, Chinese or, indeed, any other national genetic science, contends Konstantin Krutovsky, scientific director of the Genome Research and Education Center at SFU, lead researcher at the Russian Academy of Sciences’ Institute of General Genetics, adjunct professor at Texas A&M University (US) and professor at Göttingen University (Germany). The problems faced by today’s science are for the most part universal, and while specific national agendas and challenges do exist, science, including genetics, has become essentially internationalized.

Krutovsky believes that genetic science, and particularly genetic engineering, has a vital role to play in meeting such global challenges as famines and food shortages, the mass spread of cardiovascular diseases, cancer and the HIV, declines in biodiversity, etc.

On the other hand, he emphasizes the complex nature of all these problems. Thus, the spread of diseases is not only a matter of genetic predisposition, which can already be detected and, for many conditions, corrected, but also of deteriorating environments, lifestyles and quality of life. Diminishing biodiversity must likewise be dealt with in a comprehensive manner, that is, through a combined effort by ecologists, lawmakers and society at large.

Many scientists agree that success in tackling global challenges depends not only on the advance of science and technology but also on the humanity’s ability to engage in sustainable business practices and make major economic decisions responsibly.

Source: Project 5-100

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