In science, the future is a treacherous place.
Each time researchers publish an exciting new study, we’re all too tempted to extrapolate far beyond the initial findings to imagine all sorts of tremendous benefits very soon. In medicine, these giddy predictions can be downright cruel. They may offer false hope to people grappling with all-too-real disorders.
Yet the future isn’t going to leave us high and dry. Researchers are unquestionably making important advances in their understanding of how our bodies work — advances that might indeed someday change the practice of medicine. As we round the corner toward the start of 2016, here’s what we may reasonably expect in a couple of high-profile biomedical fields.
Scientists traveled from around the world to Washington this month to talk about the potential uses of a new gene-editing method called CRISPR. Reading the more breathless coverage of the event, you might have come away imagining that in 2016 we will start designing babies to suit our every whim: excelling at math, winning at sports, or — dare we dream — growing glitter beards.
Not going to happen. The scientists at the CRISPR meetings agreed that even trying to tamper with human embryos destined to develop into children would, for the foreseeable future, be “irresponsible.” On the other hand, they endorsed exploring gene editing as a medical treatment — altering the genes of immune cells to make them capable of killing cancer, for example.
Right now, researchers are only testing out CRISPR on cells and lab animals. What can you expect from the technique next year? How about deep insights into how life works.
Scientists are now using CRISPR to precisely disable short pieces of DNA and then observe the resulting effects. Already, researchers have come up with a catalog of genes that are essential for life. Ironically, they don’t understand what many of those essential genes actually do for us. CRISPR will help us understand them, too.
Gene editing could become a powerful medical tool, but it’s important to remember that we’re far more than just our genes. Our DNA is enveloped by swarms of other molecules, for example, that control whether they can be active or not.
The study of this extra layer of biology — known as epigenetics — is revealing how those molecules change over a person’s life. And scientists have found hints that epigenetic changes that people experience in their life can get passed down to their children.
Epigenetics research regularly attracts lots of public attention, but at this point any claims about it deserve a lot of healthy skepticism. This year, for example, a University of California, Los Angeles researcher speaking at a conference reported that he and his colleagues could predict whether men were homosexual or not based on epigenetic patterns in their cells. Other researchers pointed out that their study was just too small and weak (it involved just 37 pairs of identical twins) to give them any reliable picture of sexual orientation.
When these high-profile studies get criticized, it can be tempting to assume that the whole field of epigenetics is a wasteland of hype. In fact, our understanding of epigenetics is growing at an accelerating clip, thanks to new technologies that allow scientists to map the molecules that adorn our DNA in fine detail.
In 2016, it’s a safe bet that scientists will discover new things about how epigenetics guides the cells in embryos as they develop into all the tissues that make up our bodies. Eventually, it may become possible to control that process in order to steer the body away from cancer and other disorders. But that will have to wait for another year.