Despite the staggering number of applications for gene therapy that are currently being investigated, the list continues to grow almost by the day. MIT researchers have discovered a potential genetic link between ADHD and Autism, meaning that gene therapy may be helpful in curing if not improving care for both disorders. The research shows that there is potentially a relationship between the brain’s thalamic reticular nucleus (TRN), which blocks out sensory inputs that can be distracting, and both ADHD and Autism. Their research suggests that when the TRN activity is slowed, the brain has a harder time controlling distractions. This means that an adjustment to the TRN behavior could help control ADHD and Autism symptoms, as well as other attention-related disorders. The study is still in its infancy and the testing is being conducted on mice, but the results are very promising. The results suggest that a correction of one specific gene, Ptchd1, carried on the X Chromosome, can restore TRN functionality.
While the research is still in the early stages, the long-term implications of a successful TRN-correction procedure are huge. The CDC estimates that 11% of children ages 4-17, accounting for 6 million children, suffer from ADHD. That is 6 million students struggling to pay attention in classrooms, struggling to focus during exams, and ultimately struggling to find employment if the symptoms persist into adulthood. If a gene editing treatment is developed, there is a possibility that those children will be able to participate and even excel in the classroom in ways they could not have fathomed without the use of prescription medicine. By eliminating the need for drugs like Adderall and Ritalin, thus eliminating children’s dependency on them, the general health of those suffering from attention disorders will improve greatly. The unfortunate reality is that disorders like ADHD condition children to depend on medicine to function properly. It is not their fault because the medicine is necessary to focus and learn, that said, it is not healthy to develop a drug dependency at such a young age regardless of its purpose.
Gene therapy is already being applied to so many genetic disorders, with the possibility of curing ADHD and Autism, a new generation of smarter, faster, healthier, and stronger people seems inevitable. There will potentially be 6 million more students studying harder, retaining more information, and ultimately becoming better learners. If this trend is multiplied across generations, eliminating prohibitive, cognitive disorders in students, it could reshape the entire education system with many subsequent disruptions. There would potentially be less of a demand for remedial education and an increase in demand for higher education or a productive alternative. This will lead to a smarter overall population, a scenario that has countless positive implications. Once of which is increased economic stimulation, resulting from the inevitable increase in demand for employment. It may be a stretch, but it is possible that one genetic modification in 6 million students could transform the entire economy.
It is easy to become caught up in the seemingly infinite number of applications for gene therapy, but the price tag is certainly a reality check. The current price for Yescarta, a patient-specific gene therapy procedure designed to treat aggressive forms of blood cancer, is a whopping $373,000. At that price point, it makes far more sense to treat attention disorders such as ADHD with prescription drugs. However, as the technology evolves, the price will inevitably come down. We are in a strange transition period in many different industries and medicine is no exception. The new advancements being made are nothing short of groundbreaking, but it is no small task to bring a new procedure to the market. Due to FDA regulations, years of research and testing are required before the first human trials, and even then, successful implementation into the market is not guaranteed. In medicine, consumer demand for treatments is ahead of the technology, and the technology is way ahead of the FDA. This may slow down the implementation of new drugs and procedures, but their timelines do not detract in any way from the scope and severity of their implications.