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In this episode of Longevity by Design, our hosts, Dr. Gil Blander and Ashley Reaver, MS, RD, CSSD, are joined by Dr. George Church, Professor of Genetics at Harvard Medical School. Tune in as Dr. George Church discusses the many roles of gene therapy, including its ability to reverse age-related diseases.
Meet Longevity by Design’s podcast guest, Dr. George Church
Dr. George Church is a geneticist, chemist, molecular engineer, and professor. Dr. Church is widely recognized for his contributions to genomic science, including developing the first direct genomic sequencing method, which resulted in the first genome sequence. He currently leads Synthetic Biology at the Wyss Institute, where he oversees the directed evolution of molecules, polymers, and whole genomes to create new technology in regenerative medicine. Dr. Church is also a professor at Harvard Medical School and MIT.
What is gene therapy?
Gene therapy is a division of biology that aims to cure diseases by correcting underlying genetic abnormalities that led to the condition. Doctors can treat specific genetic disorders through gene therapy by turning off genes that aren’t properly functioning.
Gene therapy is currently being used in two ways—to treat rare diseases and to create vaccines. “We take a single gene wrapped in a viral capsid and use this to prevent or treat disease,” explains Dr. Church. In the case of rare diseases, for example, spinal muscular atrophy, gene therapy can be costly. Conversely, gene therapy for vaccines, for instance, Nucleic Acid vaccines, is far less expensive and more broadly used. Vaccines are typically inexpensive and can be used on a broad scale, making them a practical use of gene therapy. The recent success of the COVID-19 vaccines is an example of how medicine can utilize this field of biology to prevent and treat disease on a global scale.
Gene therapy and the reversal of age-related diseases
Another powerful implication of gene therapy is its potential use in reversing age-related diseases. Dr. Church recently conducted a study in which he hypothesized that by artificially boosting up specific proteins that decline with age, an organism might better recover from age-related diseases. Discussing his study, Dr. George Church explains, “Of all the genes involved with aging, we prioritized the genes that would spread throughout the body. This way, we would not need efficient delivery to every single cell, but rather a small amount of gene delivery followed by a lot of protein delivery.” Out of the 45 initial genes identified, Dr. Church selected three to use on various age-related diseases. Clinical trials for this therapy are currently underway, and results look promising.
Dr. Church goes on to discuss the impact of cell therapy on regenerative medicine. He explains that drugs that act on target cells can have far-reaching effects due to the many roles cells play in the body. ''You can make extremely sophisticated cells either by engineering stem cells or by engineering the germline of animals. You can then test their effects extensively on the very same animals that will be donating organs,'' says Dr. Church.
The intersection of biology and technology
Biotechnology, the intersection of biology and technology, has recently significantly impacted the field of genetics. Dr. Church and his team have developed applicable technologies. "A lot of the technologies we develop cut across many different application fields. For example, reading, writing, and editing DNA can be applied to almost any organism and occasionally to nonorganisms, like chemical materials or data storage."
Dr. George Church discusses the role of biotechnology in exponential health improvements. ''If you're given a wish, and you can only have one wish, your wish should be four more wishes. And so, if you're given technology, you should ask for a technology that gives you more time to develop more technologies. And that's essentially what aging reversal is. It might grant some of us more time to make more inventions that have a positive consequence.''
Advice on living a healthier longer life
When asked what his top tip is for living a healthier, longer life, Dr. Church responds, “I think most of the things that make us healthy have been known for a long time, maybe centuries. You need to have affection for other human beings, you need to exercise, and you need to eat a balanced, diverse diet.”