Harvard geneticist developing DNA-based dating app to eliminate genetic disorders

A startup led by George Church, PhD, a pioneer in the field of genetics and genomic sequencing, is developing a dating app that would screen a user's potential matches to prevent them from passing on inheritable diseases.

During a recent 60 Minutes interview with CBS, Dr. Church, who helped launch the Human Genome Project in 1984, discussed several ongoing projects at his lab at Boston-based Harvard Medical School. The lab's portfolio largely revolves around editing, combining and adding to human DNA to address challenges ranging from reversing aging to eliminating genetic disorders.

The dating app is aiming for the latter: If two parents are both carriers of the gene for an inheritable disease such as cystic fibrosis or sickle cell anemia, their children have an even greater chance of contracting the disease. Dr. Church's app would prevent carriers of these genes from dating by comparing users' genomic sequencing data.

"You wouldn't find out who you're not compatible with. You'll just find out who you are compatible with," he said on 60 Minutes, explaining that the elimination of genetically incompatible couples would eventually result in the elimination of costly disease-carrying genes altogether. "It's 7,000 diseases. It's about 5 percent of the population. It's about a trillion dollars a year, worldwide."

In these and other projects based on genetic modification, Dr. Church claimed that he and his team are not playing God, but "playing engineer," while stressing the importance of caution.

"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 its unintended consequences might be," he said.

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