Genetic engineering takes steps towards building superhumans

The enhanced abilities of beloved superheroes could become a reality.

The superpowers of heroes such as Spiderman, Captain America, and the Hulk have become a frequent sight in movies and TV shows, but new technology may mean that you could see them in your day to day life, sometime in the near future.

A paper recently released by Stephen Hsu, a professor of theoretical physics at Michigan State University, asserts that by tweaking our genomes, we could make humans drastically smarter. He explained that by modifying gene variants, human intelligence could be increased to 10 times what it is now.

The paper has inspired renewed discussion in the academic community around the issue of genetic modification and how it might be used to give people ‘superhuman’ powers.

Last week, a man who had been paralyzed for two years walked again following a transplant to his spine. The treatment involved the injection of olfactory ensheathing glial cells (OEGs) into the man’s spine, which were able to create new nerve cells and repair damaged ones.

Michel Leroux, professor in SFU’s Department of Molecular Biology and Biochemistry, acknowledged the uses of stem cell technology: “It’s simply basic biological principles that multicellular animals, such as us, employ to grow from a single cell to an adult.”

However, he speculated that, “we will require 50 plus years to get closer to really understanding mechanisms at the molecular level inside our cells.”

Human engineering is not just limited to comic books anymore. John Gurdon and Shinya Yamanaka, who won the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 2012, discovered that adult cells can be reprogrammed back into stem cells.

These stem cells can then be pushed to develop into a huge variety of adult cells: skin, bone, muscle, or even nerve.

The technique, called induction of pluripotency, has made previously impossible therapies a reality. A short list of examples includes repairing damage to the heart after a heart attack, creating new insulin producing cells for diabetic patients, and even constructing a kidney from scratch.

Such advances in the use of genetic engineering are reminiscent of a ‘healing factor’ that allows superheroes like Wolverine and Deadpool to heal their injuries supernaturally fast. When asked whether reprogramming a human’s body like this would ever be possible, Leroux suggested that it represents a logistical challenge.

“The main issue there is delivery,” he said.

Currently, there are many methods for modifying cells’ behaviour, but most involve somehow getting foreign genes into the cell. There is even a ‘gene gun’ currently on the market, which fires DNA-coated gold particles into cells. Despite the innovation, physically getting DNA into many cells in a living organism is extremely difficult, at least for now.

Gene editing tools like CRISPR — clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats which take advantage of natural DNA repair machinery to engineer the genome — might mean that scientists are that much closer to giving humans supernatural healing or amplifying the abilities that we already have. For instance, infants under a year old that have lost a finger tip can regenerate the finger, much like how a salamander can regenerate a lost limb.

Leroux explained that the excitement behind CRISPR is due to its incredible versatility and that “remarkably, it works in everything that’s been tried.”

However, with these powerful tools also come ethical challenges. Leroux had his own opinions on the matter. “Personally, I could say that if you know that your children will have a particular genetic disorder and you’re able to fix that, I think that’s ok,” he said. “So is that where you draw the line? You can pre-fix problems but you can’t enhance existing traits.”

For good or bad, Marvel or DC, the capabilities to engineer superhumans are already here.

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