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Guest: Dr. George Church; Topics: Human spaceflight genetic issues, manipulation, modification, research and more.
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We welcomed Dr. George Church to the program to discuss human spaceflight genetic issues, possible gene modification, research and all related topics. We started our one segment 76 minute program by asking Dr. Church for an introduction and overview of human spaceflight genetic research, including the possibility of modifying human genes for specific long duration spaceflight challenges. Important websites to reference with Dr. Church include www.personalgenomes.org/us, and https://spacegenetics.hms.harvard.edu, http://arep.med.harvard.edu/gmc.
Dr. Church provided us with a comprehensive overview and talked about the Consortium for Space Genetics, repairing and preparing for long duration spaceflight including Mars but also the rest of the solar system. Dr. Church talked about the difference in perhaps offering a genetic modification that might kick in during a certain experience, say microgravity or radiation but then revert back to normal when that situation no longer exited. He explained in detail this type of research and solution outcome as compared to precise gene editing requiring the removal of a specific gene and replacing it with the modified gene. During the first part of our discussion, Dr. Church talked about the advantages of one type of genetic spaceflight modification over the other. Actually editing out a gene and replacing is much harder and more long term in being realized.
In this discussion, our guest focused on radiation and microgravity but we also talked other more specific issues such as osteoporosis which got lots of attention. So did genetic anti-aging research which he pointed out was being carried out on dogs at this time but would soon go to human clinical trials. Don't miss what he said about anti-aging research, what it was attempting to realize, and how a pill might be the outcome rather than precise gene editing. Our guest went on to tell us why this was important for human spaceflight because in space, aging accelerates.
Listeners had many email questions for our guest. Initially they seemed to focus on both lunar habitats, living on Mars and modifying humans for space settlement. Once again, our guest talked about the differences in some sort of genetic manipulation, maybe by using a pill or even inserting a modified extra copy of a specific gene that only was active in certain environments. He continued to contrast this approach with that of specific gene editing and replacement.
Another topic that we discussed looked at the cost and the economics involved in gene therapy. There were some surprises in what our guest said about genetic economics as compared to alternative approaches for radiation and microgravity which might include advanced shield and some sort of spinning artificial gravity. The economic discussion was then followed by one dealing with the research and ethical challenges. Here, our guest talked about ethical challenges in general when new technologies were involved. I then asked our guest about spinoff benefits from the human spaceflight research to those of us on Earth and not involved in space. Dr. Church suggested that the spillover benefits would probably flow in reverse, from Earth to spaceflight.
We received an email from Helen who said we had been hearing about genetic modification to enable living on the surface of the Moon and/or Mars. Don't miss what our guest said in response to Helen's question. I followed up Helen's inquiry by asking Dr. Church if in his research and lab there was a priority list of what to research or investigate firs. For example, was radiation the top priority or was it microgravity or something else. Once again, be sure to listen to what Dr. Church had to say in response to my priority question.
Listener Tim asked about the research of Dr. Limoli suggesting that radiation worsened cognitive issues in space causing cognitive decline to worsen. Our guest said it was very hard to measure and evaluate cognitive decline due to rodent and other research models so one in one sense, it is not a well defined issue. He went on to say that so much fundamental radiation DNA changes were known that included cognitive issues so looking at this problem from a genetic manipulation point of view had at least a basic understanding. Once again, don't miss all of what he had to say about radiation and cognitive decline in space plus the role of genetic manipulation to counter it. Before moving to another topic, I asked Dr. Church if in his research he had come face to face with what he thought were show stoppers or possibly so risky for humans that the policy making and regulatory world might prevent the spaceflight from taking place. This question led to a regulatory and policy making discussion, the role of the FDA, the importance of regulation and the value of clinical trials, plus the need for biology to be at the top rather than finding conflict form time to time with physics and some areas of engineering.
Ben sent in an email asking about possible genetic treatment in space, not on Earth. Other email questions came in about humans in other parts of the solar system, including the clouds of Venus, maybe someday on Titan or someplace else. Our guest addressed this by talking about generic genetic human spaceflight mitigations but also some specific or targeted ones useful for specific locations like those mentioned.
Dr. Church was asked about science fiction with hibernation and sleeper ships for interstellar flight. Listen to what he said about sci fi as well as hibernation and how it is studied with bears. I asked specifically what a bear uses for hibernation and he said multiple systems but that they really don't yet understand the process for bears or whales being able to dive to the deep part of the ocean and return.
Listener Tom asked our guest about consumer CRISPER kits. Elizabeth asked Dr. Church about the way research is done in the US with government, industry and academic research. Our guest had much to say about this, including the use of venture capital plus the size of the market and drug prices.
As we were coming to the end of our program, I asked our guest for his goals with his genetic research for human spaceflight. Don't miss what he said. We got a last minute email from Bill wanting to know about the need for genetic anything with space tourism. In his answer, our guest also talked more about clinical trials and developing a business model for demonstration communities on Earth for testing which he said would be far more cost effective and quicker than doing trials in space. Don't miss this final part of our discussion.
Dr. Church offered us a summary plus I asked him where things would be in five years and ten years. Don't miss what he said.
Please post your comments/questions for Dr. Church on our blog for this show. You can reach Dr. Church through me or his above websites.