Danny Tyree, 5/6/2015 [Archive]

Coming Soon: Letters To The Gene Editor?

Tyrades!By Danny Tyree

Get ready for the return of all the cooing and wailing about "designer babies."

According to Vox.com, geneticists at Sun Yat-sen University in China recently achieved a breakthrough by modifying the DNA of a nonviable human embryo.Results were published in the journal "Protein & Cell."

The technique, known as CRISPR, is faster and cheaper than other gene-editing practices; but it has stirred a firestorm of controversy. The prestigious journals "Science" and "Nature" refused to print the study, on ethical grounds. The director of the National Institutes of Health announced on April 29 that he will not pay for scientists meddling with DNA in a human zygote.

Even the Chinese government is squeamish. An official said that embryos should not be kept in a laboratory and subjected to these manipulations. Instead, the embryos should be in Chinese factories cranking out cheap, junky products for Americans.

Supporters of CRISPR see it as the medical breakthrough of the century, a potential way to eradicate AIDS, leukemia, cystic fibrosis, Alzheimer's disease and more. Skeptics fear that doctors curing one ailment might accidentally cause another; such mutations would be passed down generation after generation.

CRISPR is being touted as a way for practically any scientist to change practically any cell. I shudder to think of the impact on school science fairs. Instead of displaying the tried and true baking-soda-and-vinegar volcano, a first-grader will declare, "'Watch me create a unibrow for Mrs. Smith's unborn baby."

Some people are tickled pink at the advances, but others are disappointed with the way science fiction has evolved into science fact. CRISPR can be used to cure, say, scoliosis. All the people who dreamed of the world of 2015 having cool stuff such as personal jet packs and robots like the one on "Lost In Space" now find science being used to HELP YOU STAND UP STRAIGHT. Move over, Stephen Hawking; science has been taken over by everybody's grandmother!

Maybe Uncle Sam won't contribute to CRISPR research, but he'll profit from it. If you think estate taxes on property and bank accounts are high, just think about putting a tax on inherited attributes. ("Hmm...cleft chin, wavy hair, blue eyes to die for...it's bonus time at the IRS!")

Many people are worried about therapeutic genetic procedures giving way to unthinkable eugenics experiments aimed at creating a master race. ("Heil — er, I mean, I'll—not dignify that with an answer.")

Coincidentally, people fear a new wave of "haves" and "have nots," with a Seinfeld-esque Gene Nazi picking winners and losers. ("No washboard abs for you!")

Many people automatically think "mad scientist" when gene editing is mentioned. Of course they also go into "pitchforks and torches" mode when someone suggests they cover their mouth while sneezing or refrain from letting their dog French kiss them. Never mind.

Some people just have misgivings about editors in general. ("My qualifications for the grant? I prevented a family from having sickle cell anemia, I blocked the development of hemophilia and I, uh, rejected the manuscript for 'Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone' 12 times.")

Given all the unknowns, I hope many years of study and debate precede further steps with CRISPR. If nothing else, maybe perfectionism will slow progress. ("We gave him incredible stamina, superhuman vision and a computer-like mind — but we can't get that funky Six-Million-Dollar-Man-jumping sound effect! Back to the drawing board!")


© 2015 Danny Tyree. Danny welcomes email responses at tyreetyrades@aol.com and visits to his Facebook fan page "Tyree's Tyrades". Danny's' weekly column is distributed exclusively by Cagle Cartoons Inc. newspaper syndicate.

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