‘It’s always too early to say something’s impossible’

George Church on rewriting the genome, exponential synthetic biology and having a longevity methodology.

Think about genomic science, and you think about George Church. Dubbed the ‘father of genomics’, he helped to initiate the Human Genome Project, and he is Professor of Genetics at Harvard Medical School. He is also Professor of Health Sciences and Technology at Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and leads Synthetic Biology at the Wyss Institute.

Longevity.Technology: It’s not long, now, until RAADfest, and Professor Church is a keynote speaker, presenting on Technologies to radically alter our genomes: why and how?, and participating in a live Q&A. We sat down with him to discuss cellular reprogramming, the problem with biomarkers and gene therapy levers – and he also teased that he’ll be presenting some as-yet-unpublished data at RAADfest…

Longevity.Technology readers can bag a 10% discount on any type of RAADfest registration! Simply use the code “technology” when booking.

George Church on…

The need for methodology

There’s been a tendency for wishful thinking that longevity can come from some simple food or a single drug that has already been approved for something else. I share that optimism, but I think we need to work on planning for the worst and hoping for the best. And we have the tools to do it now – suddenly, and it has really been an exponential experience, there is progress in making both analytic and synthetic biology tools.

An operating system is a good metaphor – you really have to deal with every aspect. It does you little good to have the part of the operating system that handles disk drives, if you don’t have the one that handles memory and the keyboard and all the rest. So, with the age-related diseases, if you get one pathway or two or even half of them, it’s quite likely that will only buy you a few years – and we’ve already bought maybe half a lifetime over the last century or so, by working on infectious diseases so well and a few other aspects of it. But to really get it, I think now we’re talking about almost turning ourselves into a different species – like the difference between a mouse and a bowhead whale is the difference between living two years and living to two hundred. And it’s not because of what they’re eating. or how much exercise they’re getting, it’s a fundamental operating system difference.

Polypharmacy for longevity

I think it’s challenging to talk about longevity until you’ve done some kind of preclinical or clinical trial that shows longevity. And that’s one of the reasons that my team and others prefer to focus on the aging reversal or the reversal of multiple age-related diseases at once.

All the progress we’ve seen so far, it’s usually a few percentage points, and that’s not what most people would call a longevity drug, although it does has an impact on the lifespan. It may turn out that to get longevity, we get at all of the hallmarks. You may need a drug for each, some drugs may knock off two at once, some may just extend lifespan by a bit, but if you get all of them and you extend them and there’s some multiplicative factor, we can get it. So it may, I think it’s very likely this polypharmacy we’re looking at is something where you have multiple drugs, just like you do for antivirals, antibacterial and the anticancers.

Rewriting the genome

Something that takes polypharmacy all the way to the extreme that we’ve been working on is writing genomes – not just editing them, but writing them. People got all excited about CRISPR, but I was jaded even before even before the paper came out in 2013 because it seemed like a step backwards. CRISPR was what I called genome vandalism; it would just make a mess of your favorite target, which was good if you wanted to get rid of something, but it was hard if you wanted to do something more nuanced or additive. And all the improvements on CRISPR are still just barely incrementally getting back to what we really want, which is arbitrary editing.

Now we’re getting to the point where we not only can do that, but we can edit the whole genome, so if there are lots of changes to you need to make, that would be possible.

If you could rewrite a genome, more than just satisfying the crucial crisis that we have in lack of organs, with so many people dying while they’re waiting in line or having medical problems while they’re waiting in line for years. More important than that, is the possibility of having enhanced organs that are resistant to human pathogens.

Check out the full RAADfest agenda and speaker line-up HERE. Don’t forget, Longevity.Technology readers can bag a 10% discount on any type of RAADfest registration! Simply use the code “technology” when booking.