Key Takeaway: Even though his research opens up a variety of ethical issues and has received funding from donors like sex offender Jeffrey Epstein, geneticist George Church continues to enjoy backing from investors and admiration from major media networks like CBS.
George Church and his lab at Harvard Medical School have an ambitious agenda: they are looking to “make humans immune to all viruses, eliminate genetic diseases and reverse the effect of time,” CBS program 60 Minutes reported on Sunday.
Even though his research veers into eugenics territory, opens a myriad of ethical issues and received funding from donors like sex offender Jeffrey Epstein, Church appears to have little outside oversight and enjoys the continued backing from investors and admiration from media networks like CBS.
The 60 Minutes report largely hailed Church as a visionary, crediting him with having “a few genes for genius” at the start of the program despite contradictory ideas he has presented to the public and the early-stage nature of a lot of his findings.
Church’s research team is actively working on reversing aging process and “engineering human organ tissue,” for example creating brain cells from regular skin cells.
“We have a way to reprogram essentially, skin cells, back into a stem cell state,” researcher Alex Ng told 60 Minutes. “And we have technologies where now we can differentiate them into tissue such as brain tissue.”
Another researcher went Siberia to extract DNA from wooly mammoths’ remains and is now editing the genes into elephant DNA in a process the lab is calling “de-extinction.”
Age reversal in dogs is in the clinical trials stage, with Church stating that a “veterinary product might be a couple of years away” and human clinical trials would take another 10 years.
The timeline hasn’t deterred investors. Church has helped launch more than 35 startups, with $100 million directed toward pig organ work alone, 60 Minutes noted.
The startups include Dyno Therapeutics, Kern Systems, GRO Biosciences, ReadCoor and others, according to PitchBook data.
Church is also the founder and “guinea pig #1” at the Personal Genome Project at Harvard University, whose mandate includes “educating the public about the potential benefits, risks, and uncertainties posed by the widespread availability of genetic and related information.”
One particular startup highlighted in the 60 Minutes segment was a dating app that helps partners screen out matches would result in a child with inherited disease.
While the geneticist didn’t disclose the name of the app or its stage of development, he noted the technology would enable you to “find out who you are compatible with” and suggested that such genome-sequences matchmaking would eliminate diseases.
“It’s 7,000 diseases. It’s about 5% of the population,” he told CBS. “It’s about a trillion dollars a year, worldwide.”
“I didn’t feel like I was particularly bold by listing all my donors on my website, I still do that.”
Not all the startups he co-founded have been successful. Veritas Genetics, a startup that promised to “sequence your whole genome” suspended operations in the U.S. last week, citing an “unexpected adverse financial situation.”
Church has also faced criticism for accepting funding from Epstein, who wanted to seed the human race with his DNA. The financier hung himself in August in his prison cell, where he was awaiting trial on sex trafficking charges.
“You never know who is going to … have an undesirable aspect to their life. I regret not knowing more about the donor,” Church said. Even so, he added, “So-called tainted money can be used for good.”
“I didn’t feel like I was particularly bold by listing all my donors on my website, I still do that,” Church said.
The 60 Minutes report noted Church has a full-time ethicist in the lab and “spends a good deal of time thinking about genetic equity,” believing that genetic technology must be available to all, not just those who can afford it.
But it’s not clear how the scientist can reconcile the aspiration to plan for genetic perfection with limited knowledge and recognition of our limitations of what constitutes “perfection” and how easily it could go wrong.
In fact, Church himself has attributed “almost all” of his ideas and scientific solutions “while he was either asleep or quasi-asleep, sometimes dreaming, at the beginning or end of a narcoleptic nap.”
If the humans of the future will all have perfectly designed genetic code, does that mean that we’ll run out of scientific ideas and solutions? Or will it create different viruses, for which we’re not yet prepared?
Notably, Church himself acknowledges the need for caution given the nature of his research.
“I completely agree that we need to be very cautious. And the more powerful, or more rapidly moving the technology, the more cautious we need to be, the bigger the conversation involving lots of different disciplines, religion, ethics, government, art, and so forth,” he said.
A geneticist whose research could translate into a eugenics application with serious consequences and who has few regrets on taking Epstein’s money shouldn’t be getting a hug and kiss from a major television network.
If anything, all of his startups, not just Veritas, should be scrutinized by all stakeholders more closely, including by the media, ethicists who don’t work for him, the government and the private sector.