Over the past several years, previous posts on this blog have warned of the potential dire consequences of tampering with the human genome before research can give us a more complete picture of secondary, tertiary– in fact, nth-degree– effects, and before policy makers worldwide use that vital picture to create strict regulations and enforcement procedures.
Changes induced in one gene, even when meant to prevent disease, may unintentionally damage or alter the functions of other genes, with unforeseen complications for that individual. For example, might genetic changes imparting the advantage of HIV immunity be offset by a secondary effect, such as down-regulation of immune system surveillance, resulting in a tertiary complication, i.e. a higher risk of developing cancer? No one knows, and yet “science marches forward” despite having blinders on. Recently in China, Dr. He (who trained at Stanford) used the CRISPR technique to change the genome of an individual who is at risk for HIV, apparently disregarding ethical concerns, safety risks and international bans on such procedures. Worse yet, it was announced that another such pregnancy is already in progress. Similar experiments have no doubt been performed elsewhere, but the difference here is that these particular gene alterations (in a germ cell) can be passed on to future generations, entering the larger human gene pool and affecting uncountable millions of people in the future. What if everyone who inherits this HIV resistance dies of cancer in their twenties? China has stepped in to halt further work in Dr. He’s lab, but what happens to those already-altered individuals? They may resist HIV, but will their overall health be harmed? And should they be prevented from having children?
Nobody, including Dr. He, has the answer. Scientists, doctors, ethicists and some lawmakers understand the danger, but incentives– including fortunes from industry, fame/notoriety, and even the Nobel Prize– are not aligned. In search of these rewards, what’s to prevent rogue researchers from pursuing every human experiment they can dream up, no matter how bizarre?
It’s the stuff of dystopian science fiction, an art which life is trying mightily to imitate. The stuff of my nightmares. Here’s an excerpt from Child of the Fourth World, the final novel in the Fourth World trilogy:
Beame interrupted, “You can’t use standard cloning procedures! For instance, you first have to selectively suppress the non-human regulatory sequences. Have you bothered to read my papers on this? In the July 2193 issue of Repro International, I provided a detailed protocol for multispecies cloning. You’ve had more than a decade to catch up…”
He suddenly froze. Meltzer was glaring at him with a ferocity that reminded Beame of someone… of whom? He needed a minute to study the knitted brow and glistening forehead, the anger in those narrowed eyes, the tightly clenched jaw, before it suddenly dawned on him: Meltzer reminded Beame of himself. Perhaps they would manage to get along after all.
“Of course I’ve read that paper, Dr. Beame,” Meltzer responded, his tone as pointed and chilly as an icicle. He sniffed in a dismissive way, as though the paper in Repro International were the source of his problems. “We followed your protocol precisely, but in this instance, it was simply inadequate. We were preparing for a fifth attempt, but then things got even more complicated. The subject, you see, was severely injured when captured by the PWE eight years ago, and has required a considerable amount of external support in order to survive. Despite that support, three weeks ago, the subject showed signs of dying— and it chose the worst possible time to do so.”
It? Beame recognized something else: his own propensity to objectify his subjects as living pools of data. But at least he also thought of them as people, not some dehumanized pieces of experimental material!
“Why? What’s the problem?” he asked, genuinely puzzled at the great lengths to which Meltzer was going. “Are you saying this… person… is in some way unique? Don’t you have other potential subjects like this? A pool of volunteers to draw from?”
“Volunteers! Other potential subjects!” Meltzer snapped. That was the problem with outside consultants: it took so long to bring them up to speed. With a theatrical sigh, he reached forward and, like a magician pulling a rabbit from a top hat, abruptly tossed the white plastic covering aside. “If you can find me a volunteer like this, Dr. Beame, I will be eternally in your debt!”
The two men stared at the supine subject, whose only movement was the subtle rise and fall of its abdominal wall as it took rapid, shallow breaths. Now Beame understood Meltzer’s choice of words. Yes, it was an “it” indeed, he thought; the subject was a creature difficult to classify, being of multispecies origin and in such an advanced state of dissection, but it was at least partially a large example of the family Felidae. That family included tigers, lions and other cats; Beame suspected the former, judging by the variegated stripes on its flanks. What remained of its external musculature was remarkably well-developed; its strength must have been prodigious. The mid-feet were somewhat elongated, the ankles plantar-flexed: for greater running speed, he guessed. A large metal cable pierced the chest, and intravascular tubes and monitors were attached to all of its extremities, wherever the skin and muscles had not been peeled away.
It was a sight sufficiently wondrous for Beame to forget his rising resentment. He felt like a young boy eyeing a toy construction set— or, in this case, more of a de-construction set. “Where in the world did you get this?” he demanded excitedly, for the moment forgetting his vaunted humanitarian qualities. “In all my years, I’ve never seen— never even heard of— a multispecies individual like this. It’s simply astounding!”