If you follow this blog, you know that I like to say that the rationale behind design fiction—provocations that get us to think about the future—is to ask, “What if?” now so that we don’t have to ask “What now?”, then. This is especially important as our technologies begin to meddle with the primal forces of nature, where we naively anoint ourselves as gods and blithely march forward—because we can.
The CRISPR-Cas9 technology caught my eye almost exactly two years ago from today through a WIRED article by Amy Maxmen. Then I wrote about it, as an awesomely powerful tool for astounding progress for the good of humanity while at the same time taking us down a slippery slope. A Maxmen stated,
“It could, at last, allow genetics researchers to conjure everything anyone has ever worried they would—designer babies, invasive mutants, species-specific bioweapons, and a dozen other apocalyptic sci-fi tropes.”
The article chronicles how, back in 1975, scientists and researchers got together at Asilomar because they saw the handwriting on the wall. They drew up a set of resolutions to make sure that one day the promise of Bioengineering (still a glimmer in their eyes) would not get out of hand.
43 years later, what was only a glimmer was now a reality. So, in 2015, some of these researchers came together again to discuss the implications of a new technique called CRISPR-Cas9. It was just a few years after Jennifer Doudna and Emmanuelle Charpentier figured out the elegant tool for genome editing. Again from Maxmen,
“On June 28, 2012, Doudna’s team published its results in Science. In the paper and an earlier corresponding patent application, they suggest their technology could be a tool for genome engineering. It was elegant and cheap. A grad student could do it.”
In 2015 it was Doudna herself that called the meeting, this time in Napa, to discuss the ethical ramifications of Crispr. Their biggest concern was what they call germline modifications—the stuff that gets passed on from generation to generation, substantially changing the human forever. In September of 2015, Doudna gave a TED Talk asking the asks the scientific community to pause and discuss the ethics of this new tool before rushing in. On the heels of that, the US National Academy of Sciences said it would work on a set of ”recommendations“ for researchers and scientists to follow. No laws, just recommendations.
Fast forward to July 26, 2017. MIT Technology Review reported:
“The first known attempt at creating genetically modified human embryos in the United States has been carried out by a team of researchers in Portland, Oregon… Although none of the embryos were allowed to develop for more than a few days—and there was never any intention of implanting them into a womb—the experiments are a milestone on what may prove to be an inevitable journey toward the birth of the first genetically modified humans.”
MIT’s article was thin on details because the actual paper that delineated the experiment was not yet published. Then, this week, it was. This time it was, indeed, a germline objective.
“…because any genetically modified child would then pass the changes on to subsequent generations via their own germ cells—the egg and sperm.”(ibid).
All this was led by fringe researcher Shoukhrat Mitalipov of Oregon Health and Science University, and WIRED was quick to provide more info, but in two different articles.
The first of these stories appeared last Friday and gave more specifics on Mitalipov than the actual experiment.
“the same guy who first cloned embryonic stem cells in humans. And came up with three-parent in-vitro fertilization. And moved his research on replacing defective mitochondria in human eggs to China when the NIH declined to fund his work. Throughout his career, Mitalipov has gleefully played the role of mad scientist, courting controversy all along the way (sic).”
In the second article, we discover what the mad scientist was trying to do. In essence, Mitalipov demonstrated a highly efficient replacement of mutated genes like MYBPC3, which is responsible for a heart condition called “hypertrophic cardiomyopathy that affects one in 500 people—the most common cause of sudden death among young athletes.” Highly efficient means that in 42 out of 58 attempts, the problem gene was removed and replaced with a normal one. Mitalipov believes that he can get this to 100%. This means that fixing genetic mutations can be done successfully and maybe even become routine in the near future. But WIRED points out that
“would require lengthy clinical trials—something a rider in the current Congressional Appropriations Act has explicitly forbidden the Food and Drug Administration from even considering.”
Ah, but this is not a problem for our fringe mad scientist.
“Mitalipov said he’d have no problem going elsewhere to run the tests, as he did previously with his three-person IVF work.”
Do w see a pattern here? One surprising thing that the study revealed was that,
“Of the 42 successfully corrected embryos, only one of them used the supplied template to make a normal strand of DNA. When Crispr cut out the paternal copy—the mutant one—it left behind a gap, ready to be rebuilt by the cell’s repair machinery. But instead of grabbing the normal template DNA that had been injected with the sperm and Crispr protein, 41 embryos borrowed the normal maternal copy of MYBPC3 to rebuild its gene.”
In other words, the cell said, thanks for your stinking code but we’ll handle this. It appears as though cellular repair may have a mission plan of its own. That’s the mysterious part that reminds us that there is still something miraculous going on here behind the scenes. Mitalipov thinks he and his team can force these arrogant cells to follow instructions.
So what now? With this we have more evidence that guidelines and recommendations, clear heads and cautionary voices are not enough to stop scientists and researchers on the fringe, governments with dubious ethics, or whoever else might want to give things a whirl.
That puts noble efforts like Asilomar in 1975, a similar conference some years ago on nanotechnology, and one earlier this year on Artificial Intelligence as simply that, noble efforts. Why do these conference occur in the first place? Because scientists are genuinely worried that we’re going to extinct ourselves if we aren’t careful. But technology is racing down the autobahn, folks and we can’t expect the people who stand to become billionaires from their discoveries to be the same people policing their actions.
And this is only one of the many transformative technologies that are looming on the horizon. While everyone is squawking about the Paris Accords, why don’t we marshall some of our righteous indignation and pull the world together to agree on some meaningful oversight of these technologies?
We’ve gone from “What if?” to “What now?” Are we going to avoid, “Oh, shit!”