You are using an older browser version. Please use a supported version for the best MSN experience.

Superhero vaccine will give body-wide genetic upgrade, says Stanford scientist

Wales Online logo Wales Online 24/06/2021 Max Channon & Ollie Buckley, SWNS

A groundbreaking "superhero" vaccination based on the DNA code of Olympic athletes could transform society within a decade, a top genetic scientist has claimed.

The jab would provide lifelong protection against three of the top ten leading causes of death, according to one of the world’s most cited experts.

The so-called “superhero” jab could offer simultaneous, long-term protection against heart disease, stroke, and Alzheimer’s disease - as well as liver disease - thanks to advances in genetic engineering.

It will deliver the blueprint of ‘ideal’ cells from men and women whose genes are more disease-resistant than those of the average person, together with an ‘instruction manual’ to help the body “repair, tweak and improve” its own versions.

A single dose could lead to a “body-wide genetic upgrade” that would cut the risk of premature death in some adults by as much as 50 per cent.

The vaccine would be administered to those in serious clinical need before being rolled out— possibly on the NHS—to the wider population, potentially including to children, he added.

Clinical trials of individual components are expected to begin by 2026, and the combination vaccine to become available within 10 to 15 years.

If breakthroughs in genome research and technology continue to evolve at the same rapid pace, the vaccine could be widely available worldwide in just 10 years, according to Euan Ashley, Professor of Medicine and Genetics and the Associate Dean at Stanford University.

Professor Ashley, 49, is the founding director of Stanford’s Center for Inherited Cardiovascular Disease and its Clinical Genomics Program.

He said: “Genomic medicine has been promised for decades, but thanks to advances in the field we are now reaching the stage where that promise is set to become reality, ushering in a bold new era of medical treatments.

“We will soon have the genetic engineering tools to repair, tweak and improve DNA associated with a host of life-limiting diseases, to make us all less prone to developing these illnesses across our lifetimes.

“This isn’t, of course, to say that we can make people live forever, and we can’t guarantee life expectancy will increase, but it is likely premature deaths could be avoided in many cases.

Euan Ashley smiling for the camera: Professor Euan Ashley © Professor Euan Ashley / Palamede SWNS Professor Euan Ashley

“Advances in DNA modification mean the number of people with ‘superhuman’ genes—those who are more disease resistant—is no longer science fiction but, in the coming years, absolute science fact.”

“Potentially millions of people could be impacted by this technology - a superhero jab, for want of a better description.

“This has the potential to greatly reduce the burden of diseases with a genetic component such as Alzheimer’s disease, liver disease, coronary heart disease and associated conditions such as strokes, and vascular dementia.

“It is not only possible, but probable, that such a jab will become available in the next 10 to 15 years, with the benefits of that treatment becoming apparent within the next two to three decades.

“If we modelled on fatal heart attacks alone then the new treatment could lead to as much as a 50 per cent reduction in incidence.”

Traditional vaccines work by teaching the immune system to recognise a foe by delivering a dead or weakened pathogen into the body.

This triggers the immune system’s own guided missiles—antibodies—to seek out the pathogens and the foreign proteins they carry and destroy them.

But most genomic vaccines, including the slated “superhero” jab, work by delivering strings of genetic code to certain cells.

This code includes multiple versions of a ‘gene editor’, a tool like a word processor, which alters just one letter of DNA from a disease-prone version to a disease-resistant version.

To ensure that the gene editors reach the right organs safely and are not destroyed en-route by the body’s immune system, they are carried by inactivated targeting viruses or encased in lipid nanoparticles—tiny bubbles of fat—to the precise destination.

The lipid technique is used by Pfizer-BioNTech to package its Covid-19 vaccine.

Scientists liken gene editing to the ‘find and replace’ feature used to correct spelling mistakes in documents written on a computer.

Instead of rewriting words, gene editing rewrites corrupt DNA.

The technique is not new but remains relatively untested, at least in humans.

Professor Ashley said ongoing advances in the genome editing tool CRISPR (clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats) will lead to “very significant” developments in the treatment of serious disease within the next decade.

They are already considered to be easier and cheaper to make at scale.

He said: “Gene editing is now coming of age, bringing with it the exciting possibility of preventing serious diseases in the population before they develop.

“Not everyone will be susceptible to these diseases but, for those who are, this will be a revolutionary new approach to preventing disease.

“There is still much to do, not least in terms of ensuring the medicine is safe, and nothing in genetic medicine is ever guaranteed, but as it now stands it looks likely that we may be able to avert a large number of heart attacks and strokes and perhaps many other diseases to keep people healthy and happy for longer.”

The likelihood of a “superhero” vaccine relies on finding real-life superhumans whose genes are uniquely resistant to disease, or which are more capable than most in fighting it.

An example is the Finnish Olympian Eero Mantyranta (doub-corr), who was found to have an unusually high level of haemoglobin, indicating an excess of oxygen-carrying red blood cells, which boosted his endurance levels.

Another example is American woman Sharlayne Tracy (doub-corr), who was found to have unusually low cholesterol levels; and an unnamed Pakistani boy who could not feel pain.

The exact number of people with superhuman genes remains unclear but is thought to include several million people worldwide.

Professor Ashley said genetic databases such as the UK BioBank, which currently holds health and genetic information on more than 500,000 people, will play a “crucial” part in genetic vaccine development.

They have already uncovered superhuman genes for heart disease, liver disease, and Alzheimer’s disease and could hold the key to cancer prevention and other terminal disease.

The details are discussed in Professor Ashley's new book The Genome Odyssey, out this week.

AdChoices
AdChoices

More from Wales Online

image beaconimage beaconimage beacon