Longevity and genetic improvement: New inequalities to come

Inequality has grown enormously within societies in the last 40 years. Some scholars (such as Thomas Piketty) consider that the heredity is an essential factor. Others, the educational possibilities what does it mean being born into a wealthier family. There are other worrisome factors of inequality on the way, which can lead to much deeper divisions, even separations, in societies, starting with the extension of longevity for those who can afford it, and the differences in intellectual and physical capacity that the gene therapyat least as long as its cost is not lowered. It is not for tomorrow, but it is for the day after tomorrow, so it would be convenient to start legislating at a national and international level to avoid this new growth in inequality that can lead to different ways of being human. The French Jean-Paul Fitoussi and Pierre Rosanvallon already warned this in part, when they spoke of the ‘new era of inequalities’ (1996).

Longevity already goes by neighborhood in almost all the big cities in the world where more than half of the world population lives, due to the feedingthe drug impactthe educational levels and other factors. But we can be before steps that have never been taken before in humanity. Let’s imagine that you can afford a genetic edition, or some medicines, that will extend your life, the good life, up to 120 years (generally it is estimated that human life has a maximum of 115 years, 10 below or above) while its neighbor, with less means, would have to content to arrive, and not necessarily well, at 60 or 70. Is such a society sustainable?

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It is not mere speculation. According to Peter Ward, author of The Price of Immortality (2022), 3,475 companies dedicated to longevity (which must be differentiated from various forms of search for a certain immortality, including digital, yearning on the rise in Silicon Valley) have attracted a total of 93,000 million dollars of investment in the US in recent years, compared to only 113 companies that received 17,000 million dollars in China, the second country with the highest investment in this field. And according to the ‘Financial Times‘, is a booming business, which is filling up with startups and tech giants like Jeff Bezosthe founder of Amazon, the Israeli businessman Yuri Milner and the co-founders of Google Larry Page and Sergey Brin, without looking for short-term benefits. Nor is it a mere dream. According to the magazine Wiredit is likely that by the end of this 2023 some of the ideas that are being considered for these purposes have demonstrated their effectiveness in humans. Among them the senolyticsA class of treatments targeting aging cells -or senescent- that accumulate in our body as we age. These cells seem to drive the aging process -from cancer to neurodegeneration-, the elimination of which is sought, to slow it down or reverse it.

In addition, advances in genetics can lead not only to improvements in humans, in individuals and, in some cases, in their offspring, but to detect early and predict the future of serious diseases in a person. This is a process that is advancing rapidly and will rapidly drop in price like the sequencing of everyone’s genome, which could have an impact, for example, on the private health insurance coverage, if they refuse to cover future diseases announced in the study of the genome of each insured. Fitoussi and Rosanvallon warned against it, why prevent it, and ensure public capacity. As it has been done so well in Europe and in some other countries with the vaccines against Covid19, manufactured by private companies, but inoculated by public services.

It is also developing what is called preimplantation genetic diagnosisin very underdeveloped fetuses, to prevent them from growing up with diseases or congenital defects -an advance that is already considered, in general, morally acceptable-, or, in a not so distant time, to deduce the intellectual quotient that they will have as adults. With the risk of falling into the eugenics (the application of the biological laws of heredity to the improvement of the human species), so in vogue at one time, now with gene editing.

The ability of this editing is advancing rapidly hand in hand with techniques such as CRISPR and others that are appearing, heritable or not (somatic editing). In fact, the case of the Chinese biologist He Jiankui (recently released from three years in prison for what he did) who, ignoring prevailing moral rules, edited the genes of two girls to make them immune to the AIDS virus, which their parents carry, you have opened a door that is difficult to close again. As biologist Siddhartha Mukherjee (The Gene: A Personal Story, 2016) ‘What if we learned to change our genetic code on purpose? If we had the necessary technologies, who would control them and who would guarantee their safety? Who would be the masters and who would be the victims of this technology?‘.

An example quoted by Walter Isaacson (The code of life: Jennifer Doudna, gene editing and the future of the human species2022): Being born black in the United States could be considered a disadvantage. There is, he points out, a gene (SLC24A5) that has a huge influence on determining skin color. What if black parents considered their skin color to be a social handicap and therefore wanted to edit that gene so that their children would have fair skin?

There is also the cost of such interventions, which, at least for now, is very high. The price of 3.5 million dollars by the multinational CSL treatment for hereditary hemophilia has sparked a debate upon how to pay for drugs and other revolutionary systems. As Isaacson adds, ‘in a world where people don’t have access to glasses, it is hard to imagine how we could find a way to have equal access to genetic improvement. Imagine the effect that will have on our species.’

Obsessed with digital and Artificial Intelligence -without which all this would not be possible and which entail, in itself, an enormous transformation- the great revolution we are entering and that will transform what we understand by human, it will also be biological. The explosion of books for reflection and dissemination on the subject is colossal, and understandable. We must prevent these new capacities of the human being from play god do not generate inequalities unmatched before in history, or even incompatibilities between humans when it comes to reproducing. Must manage them Y control them before it is too late.


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imma flores

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Longevity and genetic improvement: New inequalities to come