The leaves are starting to come out on the trees, the robins are back, and I’ll be planting my garden next weekend. But spring is also time for the Tarp and Tape Ball, the annual fundraiser for the John Trigg Ester Library. Yes, an event where Alaskans dress in ball gowns and tuxes made from tarp and duct tape.
There are duct tape superhero costumes, sexy cocktail dresses that look like the real thing, and wedding dresses with cathedral trains.
I just went to the store and bought a pattern. I followed that pattern. Until I decided I wanted it to be shorter. Then I wanted a narrower shoulder strap. I ignored the zipper in favor of just taping it closed. I didn’t bother with seam allowances since I was just going to tape the edges together. I just cut up the pattern until I got what I wanted.
I was thinking about that tarp dress pattern today. Not because the ball is coming up, but because we can do that to people now.
A recent study at a Chinese university took 86 non-viable early-stage embryos and used a set of enzymes called CRISPR/Cas9 to snip out a gene that would cause a fatal blood disorder, and replace it with a normal gene. It worked. In a small number of them. Of the 28 embroyos where the gene was sucessfully removed, a very small fraction had a successful replacement and a few of them had a mutation introduced.
This exercise in editing the human pattern, changing a person before they are born, even changing one gene that is associated with suffering and death, might seem to be worth it, but it can be dangerous.
Just like altering a piece of clothing after it is made means the pattern is still intact somewhere, trying to eliminate genetic disease in an adult means their genetic make-up was set before it was tampered with. If you alter the pattern, all the copies after that are the same, they might be better than the original, they might be worse, but the change is permanent. If I wanted to go back and make another tarp dress with the old pattern because the original didn’t work, the pattern would be gone.
It’s hard to say how long it would be before the CRISPR/Cas9 enzyme is accurate enough to alter and repair any genome, adult or embryonic, but the discussion in the scientific community just reached a new urgency. If we can replace genes that cause illness, we can replace normal ones and give some (the wealthy?, specially selected individuals?) huge advantages, or just subject them to a failed gene therapy.
It seems the best course is to only alter the clothes once they are finished, but my tarp dress turned out great for the most part. And if we could stop people from being born with illnesses it would alleviate a form of human suffering, but might it facilitate something much worse.
Scientists Genetically Modify Human Embryos For First Time. Are We Facing A New Era Of Eugenics?