Drug companies are tracking down superhuman mutants to use their genes to cure debilitating medical conditions.
This may sound like the premise of the next X-Men movie, but it’s actually happening right now. Thanks to advances in epigenetics and genome sequencing, drug companies like Amgen and Genentech have been able to identify these genetic “outliers” and examine their genomes. Like some of Marvel’s merry mutants, they look like ordinary humans and show no outside hints that give them away as having these rare conditions, until you look at their genes.
Take Steven Pete, who possesses a superhuman insensitivity to pain. If he were burned by a hot stove or pierced by a piece of glass, it wouldn’t register to him. His parents first noticed his condition when he almost bit off his own tongue as an infant. How’s that for an origin story?
Neither of his parents have Steven’s condition, but they do possess a single, normally benign mutation that, when combined, led to Steven’s bizarre “superpower”. His genome and others like his are being investigated by Californian company Genentech to create more effective painkillers that aren’t based on potentially addictive opioids like morphine.
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Another man, Timothy Dreyer, possesses a condition known as sclerosteosis, which gives him enhanced bone density, due to a mutation in a protein that normally acts as a “brake” on bone growth. Subsequently, he can resist injuries that would cripple a normal person. Amgen is trying to create a drug that mimics Dreyer’s genetic mutation as a treatment for osteoporosis. After positive results in lab mice and human trials, the drug is currently in its final stage of testing, with results due in 2016. NASA has already shown interest in Amgen’s results, hoping to use the resulting drug to combat the bone wastage that astronauts undergo when they encounter extended periods of microgravity.
So why the sudden appearance and interest in these “gifts from nature”, as one Amgen researcher dubbed them? Thank the Human Genome Project. Where previously it took 13 years and three billion dollars to sequence all the genes of one person, today we can sequence the genomes of thousands of people, keep a database of them and search for genetic “outliers”, all for the low sum of $1000 a patient.
People like Pete and Dreyer aren’t quite exciting enough to make a movie about, but they are helping to save the world in their own way.