Issues surrounding the bioengineering of living cells — particularly experiments which apply to or utilize human genomes — are expansive and multi-faceted, technically and ethically complex, and both consequentially exciting and terrifying.
The current COVID-19 pandemic offers tragic evidence of what can — and already has — gone disastrously wrong.
Little doubt continues to remain that this has resulted from a highly controversial, intentionally infectious, and irresponsibly unsafeguarded human engineered "gain of function" lab experiment that created and released a Frankenvirus from Hell.
On the other hand, imagine possibilities afforded to discover safe ways to edit genes that produce dispositions to cancers and neural disorders; deafness and blindness; dementia and Alzheimer’s diseases; deadly and debilitating birth anomalies; schizophrenia and bipolar disorders; and endless other serious human health impairments.
These powerfully perplexing tradeoffs are broadly recognized by scientists in the bioengineering community.
Gene Editing: Rewriting Our Human Biological Script
In the spring of 2014, Berkeley biochemist Jennifer Doudna who helped to invent a powerful new technology that made it possible to edit the human genome – an achievement that made her the recipient of the Nobel Prize in 2020 — had a nightmare.
In the dream, Doudna entered a room for a meeting with a pig-faced Adolph Hitler who instructed her, "I want to understand the uses and implications of this amazing technology you’ve developed."
The innovation applied a trick that bacteria have used to fight off viruses over more than a billion years . . . developing clustered, repeated sequences in their DNA (referred to as "CRISPRs") that can recognize and chop up viruses that attack them.
Doudna and others adapted the system to create a tool that can edit DNA — opening the potential to cure genetic diseases, ensure healthier babies, invent new vaccines, and help humans fight their own wars against viruses.
Remarkable human therapeutic CRISPER applications are already being demonstrated.
Twin babies known as Lulu and Nana became international news in 2018 after He Jiankui, a young Chinese biophysicist who attended some of Dr. Doudna’s discussions, modified a gene when they were embryos that produces a receptor for a virus that causes AIDS.
However, as reported in Science Magazine, a major ongoing concern is that He Jiankui’s attempts to cripple CCR5, the gene for a protein on immune cells that HIV uses to infect the cells, may also have made some "off-target" changes elsewhere in the girls’ genomes that could possibly cause cancer or other problems.
Scientists also worry that gene-edited children might pass along irrevocable genetic mutations to future generations.
He Jiankui’s CRISPER editing of the twin embryos set off a contentious and continuing debate among geneticists and lay populations who regard the core issue as an ethical red line that, when crossed, could ultimately alter our species.
This is different issue than far less controversial cases that involve fixing serious maladies caused by simple mutations in adult cells which won’t be inherited. An example is Victoria Gray, a Mississippi woman who was cured of sickle-cell disease by removing some of her stem cells and editing them with CRISPR.
Bioengineering Mighty Mice and Military
Wall Street Journal writer Walter Isaacson points out a slippery slope where "you would go into a fertility clinic and be given, as if you were at a genetic supermarket, a list of traits that you can buy for your children."
Isaacson adds, "And if such remedies are possible and safe, why not go farther and allow parents to enhance their children, giving them higher IQs, stronger muscles, greater height, and a preferred hue of skin and hair?"
These are no longer remote theoretical possibilities. For example, genetic researchers have already produced "mighty mice" and cattle with "double muscling."
In 2014, University of Rochester researchers transplanted human fetal brain cells called astrocytes into young laboratory mice. Within a year, the human cells took over those mice brains. Cognition tests showed that the rodents became smarter.
Referring specifically to CRISPR, Wilson VornDick, an expert on Chinese defense technology at the Center for a New American Security, co-authored a 2019 paper that indicated signs that China was interested in using gene-editing technology to enhance human — and perhaps soldier — performance.
U.S. intelligence also reportedly confirms that China has been conducting "human testing" on members of the People's Liberation Army in hope of developing soldiers with "biologically enhanced capabilities."
Dangerous Monkeying with Human Hybrid Embryos
Last April, researchers in the U.S. and China announced that they had made embryos with combined human and monkey cells.
To create them, researchers from the Salk Institute for Biological Studies in La Jolla, California, and China’s Kunming University of Science and Technology, injected human stem cells — made by reprogramming mature skin or blood cells — into 132 embryos from macaque monkeys.
Although scientists have been injecting human cells into mice, rats, pigs and cows over several years to produce "chimeras" (pronounced ky-meer-uhs), this was the first such experiment to use primates which are so genetically similar to humans.
Salk laboratory director Juan Carlos Izpisua Belmonte who led the study reported to the Wall Street Journal that so far, these human-monkey chimeras in lab dishes can’t survive longer than 19 days, and that, "It’s never been our intent and never will be to create a living chimera in a monkey host."
Nevertheless, other scientists point out that when human cells are injected into an animal embryo at such an early stage of development, there isn’t presently any way to control where they go or to limit what type of adult cells they become.
As even Dr. Belmonte points out, "Not everything that we scientists can do should be done . . . Experiments like this certainly raise many concerns."
The grave danger is that we are monkeying with millions of centuries in which our natural evolution is leading to the ability to hack the code of life and to engineer our genetic future.
Our wisdom in applying and controlling these capabilities intelligently will literally define us.
Larry Bell is an endowed professor of space architecture at the University of Houston where he founded Sasakawa International Center for Space Architecture and the graduate space architecture program. His latest of 10 books, "What Makes Humans Truly Exceptional," (2021) is available on Amazon along with all others. Read Larry Bell's Reports — More Here.
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