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The COVID pandemic massively accelerated pharma and biotech innovation - every aspect from drug discovery to recruitment for clinical trials.

And in all this frenetic innovation, we have entered the Age of the Gene, as I predicted decades ago in The Genetic Revolution (1993).

Humankind now has the power to redesign the very basis of life itself, and to create a new super-race of people with enhanced DNA. It is impossible to overstate the long term significance of this, which is the basis of transhumanism.

Ability to read your genetic code (genome)

It took $3bn and 15 years of work to decode a single genome, a cost which has already fallen to around $1000.  

By 2025, it is likely that doctors will be able to read an individual’s genetic code in less than 2 hours for less than $500, enabling us to predict our medical future with far greater accuracy – comparing patterns of genomes, medical records and lifestyle data.

Expect gene readers on devices as small as today’s USB sticks by 2040, taking 30 minutes to decode each strip of genetic code.

Gene screening will be free for many people within 20 years, paid for by pharmacies for loyal customers, or by companies wanting to protect employee health, or by insurance companies and governments

More than 100,000 genomes have already been sequenced by the UK health service. We can already predict gene-related future illness in 10% of babies tested at birth, such as heart disease or hearing loss.

Big Data has already identified genes associated with speech, memory, murder, addiction, excessive risk-taking, shyness, obesity, faithfulness, psychosis and happiness, among other things.

And once a gene is located and a test devised, it can be used on IVF embryos before implantation, raising a host of ethical issues. It is one thing to decide not to implant embryos that carry genes which guarantee a very serious, lifelong illness, but quite another to select embryos for some preferred feature.

Many murderers on death row in US share unusual genes

Researchers have already found that a high proportion of murderers on death row in the US share a common gene or genes, raising profound questions about responsibility or therapy.

Having the ‘wrong genes’ has been cited in mitigation against sentence of execution in America over 50 times since 1994. Men with XYY chromosomes are more likely to commit murder, while the gene affecting production of monoamine-oxidase-A in the brain is called the Warrior Gene, because it is linked to very aggressive behaviour.

Researchers have also discovered that many “epigenetic” changes take place to our genes during our lives, affected by the kind of lives we lead, activating some and suppressing others, and that these changes can be passed on to our children. So exposure to environmental risks, or major stress, or to other things, may have impact on more than one generation. These findings will increase parental worries.

Improving your own genes – and Hyperlympics sporting events

Once you find a rogue gene in your own genome, which is almost certain to make you very sick, why not correct the defect? This is the basis of gene therapy, and as we have seen, a relatively simple method is to use human viruses.  Another method is to use various gene editing techniques.  Very precise changes can be made, letter by letter, in genetic code, taking the very best genetic variants from many different people.

And of course, such changes may well be passed on through sperm and eggs to alter genetic code of many generations to come. But what if we make a mistake?  What if we create dangerous new variants of bacteria or viruses, or carry out edits on humans which have unexpected health consequencies for future generations? 

Some athletes are already experimenting with injected gene fragments, which have short-term effects and are very hard to detect.

Bio-doping will be a major problem in all future Olympic events, and is already raising questions about validity of new sporting records. If an athlete is winning every event because of specially engineered and ‘alien’ gene sequences, what then?  We already have the Paralympics – so maybe a new competition will be named the Hyperlympics.

Cut and paste genes from one species to another

We share almost most of our genes with insects, earthworms, rats, rabbits, and horses, and 50% with bananas. We can cut and paste genetic code very easily, without needing to know in advance what results might be, using techniques like CRISPR in labs as small as a single Portacabin. Human genes have been added to mice, cows, sheep, rabbits, rats and fish, to name just a few.

Huge numbers of designer animals are born every year, each a unique mix of two, three or more different species. For example, transgenic sheep programmed to produce human hormones or other complex molecules in their milk.

Scientists have created a goat with genes from a spider, so that web proteins are excreted into milk. These proteins can be extracted to create a kind of textile fibre which is highly elastic and almost as strong as Kevlar.

Expect humanised cows to produce low-fat milk. Another goal will be cows that produce human breast milk. Biotech farming raises new animal welfare issues – for example, in the case of cows that are programmed, or driven by hormone injections, to produce many times their natural daily yield of milk.

And of course food scientists can and will also re-engineer fruit, vegetables, cereal crops and rice on a huge scale.  

Nothing new about this – Genetically Modified crops have been around for over 25 years. But the precision with which they can now redesign is breathtaking.  Just one example is a tomato which grows to three times normal size, containing five times normal levels of the red pigment lycopene.

Altering the human race

The desire to alter the human race is an old one. 60,000 forced sterilisations of women with ‘unwanted mental and physical characteristics’ were carried out in Sweden from 1935 to 1976, with similar practices in Denmark, Norway, Finland and Switzerland.

And 20% of the entire world’s population is already banned by law from having children if the State decides their genes are not worth reproducing ‒ in China.

Who owns a species?

Is it right for a company to own an entire new species? Is it right to create a species which is guaranteed to suffer? Both questions were raised by the creation of  the oncomouse, designed to develop fatal cancer 90 days after birth, created in America to test new cancer treatments, commercially owned, and protected by patent.

Patents on human genes

Is it right for companies to own human genes? A man in the US developed cancer and gave cells for research. The genes were used to develop a diagnostic test which was patented. He was furious. ‘I own my own genes,’ he said. He challenged the company in the Supreme Court, but lost. As a result, humans do not have the right to own their own genes in America.

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