With the advent of CRISPR, a new way to edit DNA, the field of genomic technology has never been more exciting. The implications have yet to be seen, but scientists could theoretically snip out a person's genetic risk for disease. But it's also never been a more anxiety-inducing time. Some experts argue innovations in genomics are moving forward at a pace faster than our ability to parse their potential consequences.
In a panel discussion at Fortune’s Brainstorm Health conference in San Diego, scientists discussed the promises and perils of this breakthrough technology—some of which they're already starting to see.
“I think CRISPR is a very exciting discovery,” said J. Craig Venter, co-founder of the health company Human Longevity, Inc. and one of the first scientists to sequence the human genome. Venter is using genome sequencing as a way to help predict a person’s risk for disease and offer more personalized treatment with a physical exam called the Health Nucleus: an eight-hour, $25,000 inside-and-out doctor’s appointment that includes whole-genome sequencing, high-tech scanning and early diagnostics.
So far the company has sequenced more than 40,000 human genomes. Of the people that complete the Health Nucleus, one in 40 will discover they have a serious cancer they didn't know about, he said.
Yet some experts are skeptical that exhaustive testing always translates to better health. Dr. Eric Topol, founder and director of Scripps Translational Science Institute, called for a more reserved way forward in his remarks at the conference, arguing that too much scanning can lead to more false positive results and potentially unnecessary interventions. “We have to prove that doing tests are truly associated with positive outcomes,” Topol said. “We have to be much more discriminative about the tests that we do.”
Some companies are taking a more tempered approach: inexpensive testing that looks for specific genes known to substantially increase a person’s risk for disease. Color Genomics, a genetics company that has brought down the cost of genetic testing, focuses on cancer and offers affordable tests for the BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes, which can significantly raise a woman’s risk for breast and ovarian cancer. “It changes the equation in terms of treating disease,” said Othman Laraki, co-founder and CEO of Color Genomics.
As for finding and fixing genetic problems well before they even arise? The scientists on the panel agreed that they're not there yet, and that current iterations of CRISPR may not be quite as precise as the hype has claimed. For now, that may be for the best. “Editing human embryos with CRISPR should be a long way off,” said Venter. “Not something we do next week.”