It is an exciting time to be in the field of Biotechnology. As we speak, there are several novel technologies on the horizon. Advancements that you or I may have considered fanciful ten, or even five years ago will soon become a reality in our lives. Until now, the two major areas where biotech had its greatest impact were traditional pharmaceutical drug development and agriculture centric solutions. Today, the field is much more evolved, that too in leaps and bounds. With genomics leading the revolution in the forefront. Current trends suggest that Genomics is already becoming more important in our world. In my opinion, it is going to transform healthcare, nutrition and well-being. In particular, two areas will see unparalleled advancements in the next 5 years.
Sequencing a genome just reached the $1000 mark. Illumina, which recently received the smartest company of the year award from MIT Technology Review magazine made the $1000 genome happen. Why is this $1000 milestone so important? Remember, if you’d sequenced your genome in 2007, it would have costed a million dollars. In just 6 years, we have brought down the cost by a factor of a thousand. That’s why $1000 was a great milestone to achieve. What’s more exciting is the industry is now moving to the $100 genome. At approximately Rs. 6,000 in today’s value, getting your genome sequenced will be as simple as getting a blood test. And unlike a blood test, it will only be required once in your lifetime. What does sequencing your genome really mean? It means that you can now begin to understand what makes you the individual you are. With parallel advancements in genome interpretation technology, you can analyze your genome in intricate detail. You can screen and identify genes that are normal and genes that have dysfunctional mutations. For example, genetic variations have influence on aging, diet, nutrition, fitness and diseases. Once you’ve figured that out, you can work towards correcting the dysfunctional genes. And while you’re at it, maybe you can enhance the function of the normal genes as well. Sounds like a scene straight out of X-Men? With genome editing, the technology that I describe below, I think the idea of genetically enhanced humans isn’t that far-fetched after all and certainly can focus on greater health and well-being for all.
2013 marked a significantly important year for scientists in the field of genome engineering. Scientists discovered that the immune defense system of bacteria could be hacked and used to precisely edit DNA in any other species. This technology called CRISPR (Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats) exploded on to the scene. In the last year we have seen several studies that demonstrate the use of this system. Using CRISPR, scientists were able to correct a cataract causing mutation in mice and edit the DNA of stem cells derived from patients with cystic fibrosis patients so that they behaved once again like normal stem cells. In what is surely a sign of things to come, the year 2014 began with the yet another remarkable study for genome editing. Scientists successfully demonstrated the use of CRISPR based genome modification to permanently alter metabolism in monkeys. For a field of study that became prominent only in the past 3 years, CRISPR promises to change the way we will think about treatment and cure of genetic diseases. Simply put, with CRISPR you can now cut and paste DNA to replace defective parts in your genome. But the implications of this technology reach farther than that. With CRISPR you can now take normal genes and enhance their function. It isn’t hard to think of situations where this can be used. For example, you could potentially improve your immunity to fight infections, have razor sharp vision or cure any genetic ailment you are suffering from.
Of course, any such radical technology will come with its own set of unanswered questions and issues that we will have to debate as a society. Not much different from the conversations and uncertainty our forefathers must have faced during the Industrial revolution or more recently Green revolution. But what we now know more so than ever, is that the era of biotechnology has arrived. We are going to see some fascinating developments in the near future that have the potential to revolutionize health and well-being if used with the best human intention. Come to think of it, someday, we all will be mutants. Not the ones from X-Men, but mutants nonetheless.
Sounds futuristic? Even a little unrealistic? What can you really do today right? Well… a lot actually. For starters, genomics can be used to tailor nutrition, fitness, identify your aging patterns, and in many cases even behavior. Remember all of these components have influence of your environment as well. Nevertheless, information about your genes can give you insights as to how you can modify your environment to suit your genetic makeup and thereby choose to live better.