Since 2015, Chinese scientists have genetically engineered the cells of at least 86 patients in an attempt to cure them of HIV and cancer. Fifteen of these tests have ended in casualties, although only half of them are attributed to gene therapy. It’s hard to know exactly what happened because the Chinese aren’t keeping a lot of documentation. In general, they are much more open to the whole concept of “fiddling with what makes us human” than the rest of the world. Apparently, they made one of their test decisions in a single afternoon.
In this case, the scientist has a noble goal: To eradicate diseases. Whether they accomplish that or not, only time will tell. The only guarantee we have is that our knowledge of human biology will advance, in some shape or form and that is always good. It just may not be exactly what we expect to learn.
Biology is one of the sciences that has a lot of unexplained phenomena. The body is an immensely complex organism and modern medicine treats it very similar to a mechanical machine. Let’s take an old-fashioned silver stopwatch for example. If the hands stopped moving on that watch you can take it to a watchsmith and he’ll crack open the back, peek around, find the broken part, replace it with a new part and voila! Good as new.
But the human body doesn’t work quite so smoothly. If it did we would all be immortal…(and we’d never go bald). The problem is, even if we replace a body part, the same problem often returns to the same spot. Drugs often temporarily solve one issue, only to create another as evidenced by the long list of possible side effects on most warning labels.
The harder we push, the harder nature pushes back. Like Dr. Ian Malcolm from Jurrasic Park would say, “Life finds a way.”
At the end of the day though, messing with our genes… and genes belonging to other species is nothing new. Every commercial plant and animal that we use has been selectively and deliberately bred over thousands of years to be more immune to diseases. Or to produce more meat faster. Or to be more resistant to transport. Humans are always trying to change the world around us for our own purposes. We’ve just never had tools like CRISPR that bring us the power to make changes so fundamentally and directly.
If you think about it, even humans have been selectively breeding ourselves all our lives. I’m not talking about Eugenics and the atrocities that have been committed in its name. I’m talking about how we are all selectively breeding on some level every time we pick a spouse. Maybe you weren’t consciously thinking about it at the time but you could argue the reason there is a sexual drive at all is to ensure we keep reproducing. And what’s the ultimate goal of reproduction? Survival of the organism. And every single cell, of the 7 trillion living cells inside of us, want to live just as much as we do. It’s a biological drive.
So what could possibly go wrong with us rolling up our sleeves and fiddling with the blueprint that regulates the actions of every cell in our body? Well, in the agricultural industry there are talks of super viruses. Viruses that have evolved to be immune to everything we have to fight against it.
Then again, on Dec 19, the US recently decided to allow the creation of deadly viruses because of the need to “develop strategies and effective countermeasures against rapidly evolving pathogens that pose a threat to public health.” Maybe CRISPR is the exact tool we need to fight for our survival.