Harvard geneticist George Church’s goal: to protect humans from viruses, genetic diseases, and aging – 60 Minutes – CBS News

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Our lives have been transformed by the information age. But what’s coming next is likely to be more profound, call it the genetic information age. We have mapped the human genome and in just the last few years we have learned to read and write DNA like software. And you’re about to see a few breakthroughs-in-waiting that would transform human health. For a preview of this revolution in evolution we met George Church, a world leading geneticist, whose own DNA harbors many eccentricities and a few genes for genius.

We found George Church in here.

Cory Smith: Most of these are frozen George. Little bits of George that we have edited all in different tubes.

Church threw himself into his work, literally. His DNA is in many of the experiments in his lab at Harvard Medical School. The fully assembled George Church is 6’5″ and 65. He helped pioneer mapping the human genome and editing DNA. Today, his lab is working to make humans immune to all viruses, eliminate genetic diseases, and  reverse the effects of time.

Harvard geneticist George Church

Scott Pelley: One of the things your lab is working on is reversing aging.

George Church: That’s right.

Scott Pelley: How is that possible?

George Church: Reversing aging is one of these things that is easy to dismiss to say either we don’t need it or is impossible or both.

Scott Pelley: Oh, we need it.

George Church: Okay. We need it. That’s good. We can agree on that. Well, aging reversal is something that’s been proven about eight different ways in animals where you can get, you know, faster reaction times or, you know, cognitive or repair of damaged tissues.

Scott Pelley: Proven eight different ways. Why isn’t this available?

George Church: It is available to mice.

In lucky mice, Church’s lab added multiple genes that improved heart and kidney function and levels of blood sugar. Now he’s trying it in spaniels.

Scott Pelley: So is this gene editing to achieve age reversal?

George Church: This is adding genes. So, it’s not really editing genes. It’s, the gene function is going down, and so we’re boosting it back up by putting in extra copies of the genes.

Scott Pelley: What’s the time horizon on age reversal in humans?

George Church: That’s in clinical trials right now in dogs. And so, that veterinary product might be a couple years away and then that takes another ten years to get through the human clinical trials.

The complicated ethics of genetic engineering

Human trials of a personal kind made George Church an unlikely candidate to alter human evolution. Growing up in Florida, Church was dyslexic, with attention deficit, and frequently knocked out by narcolepsy.

Scott Pelley: What was it that made you imagine that you could be a scientist?

George Church: The thing that got me hooked was probably the New York World’s Fair in 1964. I thought this is the way we should all be living. When I went back to Florida, I said, “I’ve been robbed,” you know? “Where is it all?” So, I said, “Well, if they’re not going to provide it, then I’m gonna provide it for myself.”

With work and repetition, he beat his disabilities and developed a genius for crystallography, a daunting technique that renders 3D images of molecules through X-rays and math. But in graduate school at Duke, at the age of 20, his mania for the basic structures of life didn’t leave time for the basic structure of life.

Scott Pelley: You were homeless for a time.

George Church: Yeah. Briefly.

Scott Pelley: Six months.

George Church: Six months.

Scott Pelley: And where were you sleeping when you were homeless?

George Church: Well, yeah. I wasn’t sleeping that much. I was mostly working. I’m narcoleptic. So, I fall asleep sitting up anyway.

His devotion to crystallography was his undoing at Duke.

George Church: I was extremely excited about the research I was doing. And so, I would put in 100-plus hours a week on research and then pretty much didn’t do anything else.

Scott Pelley: Not go to class.

George Church: I wouldn’t go to class. Yeah.

Duke kicked him out with this letter wishing him well in a field other than biology. But, it turned out, Harvard needed a crystallographer. George Church has been here nearly 40 years. He employs around 100 scientists, about half-and-half men and women.

Scott Pelley: Who do you hire?

George Church: I hire people that are self-selecting, they see our beacon from a distance away. There are a lot of people that are a little, you know, might be considered a little odd. “Neuroatypicals,” some of us are called.

Scott Pelley: “Neuroatypical?”

George Church: Right.

Scott Pelley: Unusual brains?

George Church: Right, yeah.

Some of Church’s “Neuroatypicals”

Parastoo Khoshakhlagh: One thing about George that is very significant is that he sees what you can’t even see in yourself.

Parastoo Khoshakhlagh and Alex Ng are among the “neuroatypicals.” They’re engineering human organ tissue.

Cory Smith: I think he tries to promote no fear of failure. The only fear is not to try at all.

Cory Smith’s project sped up DNA editing from altering three genes at a time to 13,000 at a time. Eriona Hysolli went to Siberia with Church to extract DNA from the bones of wooly mammoths. She’s editing the genes into elephant DNA to bring the mammoth back from extinction.

Eriona Hysolli: We are laying the foundations, perhaps, of de-extinction projects to come.

Scott Pelley: De-extinction.

Eriona Hysolli: Yes.

Scott Pelley: I’m not sure that’s a word in the dictionary yet.

Eriona Hysolli: Well, if it isn’t, it should be.

Scott Pelley: You know there are people watching this interview who think that is playing God.

George Church: Well, it’s playing engineer. I mean, humans have been playing engineer since the dawn of time.

Scott Pelley: The point is, some people believe that you’re mucking about in things that shouldn’t be disturbed.

George Church: I completely agree that we need to be very cautious. And the more powerful, or the more rapidly-moving the technology, the more cautious we need to be, the bigger the conversation involving lots of different disciplines, religion, ethics, government, art, and so forth. And to see what it’s unintended consequences might be.

Church anticipates consequences with a full time ethicist in the lab and he spends a good deal of time thinking about genetic equity. Believing that genetic technology must be available to all, not just those who can afford it. 

We saw one of those technologies in the hands of Alex Ng and Parastoo Khoshakhlagh. They showed us what they call “mini-brains,” tiny dots with millions of cells each. They’ve proven that cells from a patient can be grown into any organ tissue, in a matter of days, so drugs can be tested on that patient’s unique genome.

Scott Pelley: You said that you got these cells from George’s skin? How does that work?

Alex Ng: We have a way to reprogram essentially, skin cells, back into a stem cell state. And we have technologies where now we can differentiate them into tissue such as brain tissue.

Scott Pelley: So you went from George’s skin cells, turned those into stem cells, and turned those into brain cells.

Alex Ng: Exactly. Exactly.

Scott Pelley: Simple as that.

Organs grown from a patient’s own cells would eliminate the problem of rejection. Their goal is to prove the concept by growing full sized organs from Church’s DNA.

George Church: It’s considered more ethical for students to do experiments on their boss than vice versa and it’s good to do it on me rather than some stranger because I’m as up to speed as you can be on the on the risks and the benefits. I’m properly consented. And I’m unlikely to change my mind.

Alex Ng: We have a joke in the lab, I mean, at some point, soon probably, we’re going to have more of his cells outside of his body than he has himself.

Church’s DNA is also used in experiments designed to make humans immune to all viruses.

George Church: We have a strategy by which we can make any cell or any organism resistant to all viruses by changing the genetic code. So if you change that code enough you now get something that is resistant to all viruses including viruses you never characterized before.

Scott Pelley: Because the viruses don’t recognize it anymore?

George Church: They expect a certain code provided by the host that they replicate in.  the virus would have to change so many parts of its DNA or RNA so that it can’t change them all at once. So, it’s not only dead. But it can’t mutate to a new place where it could survive in a new host.

Correspondent Scott Pelley with George Church

Yes, he’s talking about the cure for the common cold and the end of waiting for organ transplants. It’s long been known that pig organs could function in humans. Pig heart valves are routinely transplanted already. But pig viruses have kept surgeons from transplanting whole organs. Church’s lab altered pig DNA and knocked out 62 pig viruses.

Scott Pelley: What organs might be transplanted from a pig to a human?

George Church: Heart, lung, kidney, liver, intestines, various parts of the eye, skin. All these things.

Scott Pelley: What’s the time horizon on transplanting pig organs into human beings?

George Church: you know, two to five years to get into clinical trials. And then again it could take ten years to get through the clinical trials.

Church is a role model for the next generation. He has co-founded more than 35 startups. Recently, investors put $100 million into the pig organ work. Another Church startup is a dating app that compares DNA and screens out matches that would result in a child with an inherited disease.

George Church: You wouldn’t find out who you’re not compatible with. You’ll just find out who you are compatible with.

Scott Pelley: You’re suggesting that if everyone has their genome sequenced and the correct matches are made, that all of these diseases could be eliminated?

George Church: Right. It’s 7,000 diseases. It’s about 5% of the population. It’s about a trillion dollars a year, worldwide.

Church sees one of his own genetic differences as an advantage. Narcolepsy lulls him several times a day. But he wakes, still in the conversation, often, discovering inspiration in his twilight zone.

Scott Pelley: If somebody had sequenced your genome some years ago, you might not have made the grade in some way.

George Church: I mean, that’s true. I would hope that society sees the benefit of diversity not just ancestral diversity, but in our abilities. There’s no perfect person.

Despite imperfection, Church has co-authored 527 scientific papers and holds more than 50 patents. Proof that great minds do not think alike.

The best science can tell, it was about 4 billion years ago that self-replicating molecules set off the spark of biology. Now, humans hold the tools of evolution, but George Church remains in awe of the original mystery: how chemistry became life.

Scott Pelley: Is the most amazing thing about life, then, that it happened at all?

George Church: It is amazing in our current state of ignorance. We don’t even know if it ever happened ever in the rest of the universe. it’s awe-inspiring to know that it either happened billions of times, or it never happened. Both of those are mind boggling. It’s amazing that you can have such complex structures that make copies of themselves. But it’s very hard to do that with machines that we’ve built. So, we’re engineers. But we’re rather poor engineers compared to the pseudo engineering that is biological evolution.

Produced by Henry Schuster. Associate producer, Rachael Morehouse. Broadcast associate, Ian Flickinger.

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