“I don’t know how it will be in the years to come. There are monstrous changes taking place in the world, forces shaping a future whose face we do not know.” East of Eden, John Steinbeck
We have recently taken the plunge having long ago resigned ourselves to the reality that there is no privacy anymore. Spitting into a tube and mailing it off to 23 Ancestry, our DNA sequence has been typed and available for analysis. Among the findings on me was that I have deep in my genome a tiny percentage of Italian and Portuguese ancestry. No longer can Rita lay sole claim to a Mediterranean heritage. Our DNA sequences will join millions of others cataloged in servers and can be used for everything from medical research, predicting potential health risks and tracking ethnic backgrounds to catching criminals.
DNA databases have been subpoenaed and used to close some old cold cases, including catching a 1973 serial killer, Joseph DeAngelo. Mr. DeAngelo hadn’t even been typed, but his relatives had, and when investigators interviewed the relatives, Mr. DeAngelo figuratively and literally came under the microscope. The investigative team subpoenaed a DNA sample from him in a decades old hunt for the killer. He came up 99.99 percent as the guy. More than likely, he’s breathed the last free air of his life.
A caution about our well tracked future is whether genetic markers would make their way to health insurance providers, or in some Brave New World, whether these indicators could be used to hike premiums for those with certain predispositions. Or worse, deny coverage entirely. May already be happening beneath the radar. This will be adjudicated, precedent established, and hysterical editorials will be written. Count on it.
“Come senators, congressmen
Please heed the call
Don’t stand in the doorway
Don’t block up the hall
For he that gets hurt
Will be he who has stalled.“
The Times They Are A-Changin,’ Bob Dylan
Chinese researcher, He Jiankui, wanted to find a cure for HIV AIDS, surely a positive pursuit. He developed a new vein to explore. Why not, instead of curing the disease, make people who cannot get it? He hypothesized the way to do that was to alter a specific gene, CCR5. Using CRSPIR[i] technology on an embryo, he cut and pasted, then implanted tiny humans in a willing (or not) uterus and grew some people. He grew two — twin girls and maybe a third later. Once the word leaked to the international press that He was altering the DNA in genes and making designer babies, the Chinese government reacted with righteous horror, as did many. The government claimed that it was not aware of the extent of his tinkering, and that no authorization was given to implant the babies, only to grow them awhile, see what happens and kill them. He must have saved up his milk money and found some other dark funding for his enterprise. There was even talk of capital punishment for He Jiankui, not an uncommon solution to an embarrassment in China. Last week credible evidence was found by other scientists looking at grant studies that there was Chinese government funding for his research from the start, all of it. Color me surprised. Once a method of customizing human beings is perfected, can Superman soldiers be far behind? Or IQs exceeding 300? Or mutant tireless and uncomplaining laborers? Or any number of permutations of designer people? How will science ethics hold fast with trillions of dollars were at stake? Aldous Huxley writ large. The commodification of human beings continues apace.
Last week another story ran that Crispr Therapeutics and its partner Vertex Pharmaceuticals[ii] had treated a rare blood genetic disease, beta thalassemia, with a one-time application of a CRISPR invader. More trials with human beings and unintended consequences be damned. The same team has started a similar study for sickle cell anemia, a genetic plague that is especially deadly in the African American community. The shares of both companies soared. A new world is upon us, and riches are there for the brave of heart. What could possibly go wrong with purposeful, profitable tweaking of the basic building blocks of human life? Not with a bang, but a whimper.
I had a dream — a murky vision — of emerging after a long walk in a desolate wood – gnarled ancient trees without leaves – and coming upon a clearing with a dried-up spring and an abandoned house with weathered wood plank walls and a door partially ajar hanging off just the bottom hinge. With some difficulty I pushed through the door and found only a scarred pine table and a tipped over ladder-back chair. On the table were a stale crust of bitten bread, a few broken crayons, a half-burned candle fixed in wax and yellowed books with bent back pages. A story I’ll never know.
‘Twas in another lifetime, one of toil and blood
When blackness was a virtue the road was full of mud
I came in from the wilderness, a creature void of form
Come in, she said
I’ll give ya shelter from the storm. Shelter From the Storm, Bob Dylan
[i] CRISPIR is the acronym for “clusters of regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats.” It is powerful and terrifying tool that mimics how a type of bacteria ‘learns’ to recognize and defend against a virus. In the bacteria, the “remembered” RNA sequence cuts the DNA of a virus it has learned to defend against into pieces, rendering it harmless. The new technology uses specific RNA sequences to cut and replace targeted sequences of DNA in a cell, including an embryo, and “fixes” or otherwise alters that embryo’s DNA, its chromosomes, its genes, what makes it, it.