New book explores the promise, perils, and mysteries of human genes

Top cancer doctor explores history and future... 05:42

Genes have been at the center of advances in medical diagnosis, gene therapy and alteration, but it's still a "long frontier," according to Pulitzer Prize winner Dr. Siddhartha Mukherjee.


"One humbling fact about our understanding of the human genome is how little we know," Mukherjee writes in his new book, "The Gene: An Intimate History," published by an imprint of Simon & Schuster, a division of CBS.

The oncologist and best-selling author of "The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer" described both the promises and the perils of the human genome.

"It's promising because as we learn more about human genes, we can diagnose diseases that we didn't know how to diagnose before. With things like genetic interventions, we can begin to cure some diseases. It's a long frontier. There's lots that we don't know, but the technology is advancing rapidly and I'm excited about that. That's what makes it promising," Mukherjee said Tuesday on "CBS This Morning." "The perils, the danger in all of this is that we will start intervening on the human genome at a time that we don't know much about it. And there's an international discussion."

The concerns are primarily driven by potential manipulations of the human embryo and embryonic stem cells, Mukherjee said. While some might think it inevitable, Mukherjee disagreed.

"I think scientists will and have in the past stepped up to the plate and created strong barricades around what kind of things can be done, what kind of interventions can be done," Mukherjee said.

Mukherjee also wrote that the genome will become a "manual of previvorship," or pre-survivor, a "tough" idea that he suggested people approach with caution.

"Previvorship is the idea that you can look at a genome and you can begin -- we're not there yet -- but we can begin to ask questions about, what might happen in your future? So the word 'previvor' is a kind of an Orwellian word that reminds us that we're going to try to predict the future from your genetic makeup. Then you become a survivor of a disease you haven't yet had," Mukherjee said. "It's a weird idea because ... often you're living in the shadow of an illness that you haven't yet had."

Not only was his family's history of mental illness a driving basis for the book, but also the "amazing things you could do with genes and genetics around cancer," he said.

"Imagine being able to tell a woman about her risk of future breast cancer and being able to screen for that or give her a drug to prevent breast cancer. This technology didn't exist 20 years ago or 30 years ago, we have all of this now," Mukherjee said. "But on the other hand, we're also grappling with the fact that there's so many uncertainties. We're using the language of genes very loosely. But what are the uncertainties? What is the real promise and what are the real perils? That's the center of the book."