Don’t be distracted by the media, Think!

The problem lies not so much in developing new ideas, but in escaping from old ones” — John Maynard Keynes

When I was a young boy my friends and I would occasionally approach one another with an extended arm and closed fist. As we did we would repeatedly say to the friend we approached, “see this hand?”, “see this hand?” and when we knew we had captivated our friend’s attention we’d use our other hand to “gently” slap him on the face, saying, “watch this hand” accompanied with uproarious laughter. I know it sounds pretty stupid but after all most young boys are stupid. In case you forgot it takes us a while to get beyond the stupid phase.

Sadly I now think the news media is using a similar prank to distract the general public from discussions of the really serious issues we all face but the media doesn’t believe will sell their publications. It’s much safer for the media to limit stories to those with banal subject matter so they’re understood by the broadest possible audience. After all we all seem to understand banality. This is why there’s so much published about the behavior of Donald Trump. There are very large segments of the population completely vested in approving or disapproving every one of Trump’s meaningless utterances.

In the meantime, while the media has distracted our attention to the banality of trump and his courtiers, there are many, many other developments taking place that will or already are of much greater consequence to the well being of very large segments of society. For me, at least, the most significant issue is developments taking place in the area of biology, more specifically to those issues related to genetics, genetic engineering and genetic surgery.

The topics of genetic engineering and genetic surgery recently became very news worthy when there were worldwide reports in almost all media publications of Dr. He Jiankui, from the Southern University of Science and Technology in Shenzhen China, using CRISPR-Cas9 technology to perform, what he calls, “gene surgery”. According to news reports “DNA surgery” precisely locates a gene to be corrected using a guide system to target it. The CRISPR technology is “specific, quick, not off-target and you can buy a kit online to knock out a gene or knock in a gene.“(1).

Dr. He’s surgery eliminated the CCR5 gene, used by Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV) to enter and infect host cells and cause HIV to occur in children resulting from maturing embryos. The father of the embryos was already afflicted with HIV and so the parents had avoided conception to avoid their children being afflicted with AIDS.

I certainly understand why many may find this story uninteresting but it’s relevance to the lives of almost all human beings is much greater than anything Donald Trump is doing or might do. According to Dr. Jennifer Doudna one of the developers of CRISPR-Cas9 technology:

The issue is this: For the roughly one hundred thousand years of modern human existence, the Homo Sapiens gnome has been shaped by the twin forces of random mutation and natural selection. Now for the first time ever, we possess the ability to edit not only the DNA of every living human but also the DNA of future generations — in essence, to direct the evolution of our species. This is unprecedented in the history of life earth.”

Dr. Jennifer Doudna

Think about Dr. Doudna’s comment for just another second or so.

“We possess the ability… to direct the evolution of our species. This is unprecedented in the history of life on earth.”

Unprecedented in the history of life on earth“, which occurred approximately one billion years ago. That’s a long time ago for something not to occur, even Donald Trump telling the truth.

Human beings now have the ability to shape their biological evolution. That means we may at some time be able to live in a cancer-free world, freeing millions of our loved-ones from the horrors the word “cancer” strikes in their hearts. Yet there are many, many biologists and scientists saying, “hold-on, just a minute we didn’t mean CRISPR-cas9 was anything that could be applied, yet“,(2) even though Dr. Doudna, herself, reminded us of one of her colleagues saying:

Someday we may consider it unethical not to use germline editing to alleviate human suffering”

Dr. Doudna joined in the criticism of Dr. He’s work saying:

“This work is a break from the cautious and transparent approach of the global scientific community’s application of CRISPR-Cas9 for human germline editing,” (3)

It’s hard to imagine that Dr. Doudna and her colleagues really thought that once CRISPR-cas9 technology was made available it would not be applied, especially in countries where it was not thought to be unethical.

Reaction to Dr. He’s work has been very ethnocentric, coming mostly from those in western societies. A recent study suggested that the Chinese public is broadly in favor of using gene-editing for medical purposes. An online survey conducted by Sun Yat-Sen University in Guangzhou found that more than two-thirds of the 4,771 people surveyed (575 of whom reportedly have HIV), supported its use in treating diseases, according to the Global Times, “The majority of the Chinese general public currently accepts the therapeutic use of gene editing to treat or prevent genetic disease in adults and children — while rejecting non-therapeutic uses, such as increasing IQs, as applications that should be illegal.” (4)

However, “In a first, researchers have safely repaired a disease-causing gene in human embryos, targeting a heart defect best known for killing young athletes — a big step towards one day preventing a list of inherited diseases. Researcher Shoukhrat Mitalipov, with Oregon Health & Science University, says beginning cell repair before fertilization is safer. ( 5)

In addition, another respected scientist, Dr. Carol Lynn Curchoe, seated first row, third from the right, writes

“The public seems to be demanding that every single thing be “known” about CRISPR science and the genome before proceeding with treatments. This is a standard that is not applied to other medical specialties.” (6)

The picture was taken when Dr. Curchoe was asked to debate in opposition to the proposition:

“This House Believes that Genetic Engineering Undermines the Nature of Humanity”

at the Oxford Union at the University of Oxford. Dr. Curchoe and her partner won the debate by a vote of 2:1. Essentially her argument was

All of us alive today share one unbroken genetic lineage with our single cell ancestors from billions of years ago. A static, unchanging genome is not part of human nature.”

Now we are learning that Dr. He Jiankui who appeared in Hong Kong last week at the second International Summit on Human Genome Editing has not been seen since. Dr. He was brought back to Shenzhen by the university’s president, Chen Shiyi, Apple Daily reported. He is under house arrest on campus, the report said, adding that there were security guards on the university grounds. (7)

These are disturbing developments and certainly an over-reaction by Chinese officials to the worldwide criticism of Dr. He’s work. As a human being he deserves the truth about his work and whereabouts be told by a free and open press, not one diverting our attention to the escapades of Donald Trump and Homer Simpson because the media thinks Trump and Homer will sell more publications than Dr. He, Dr. Doudna and Dr. Curchoe.

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Notes:

  1. https://www.myelomacrowd.org/advances-in-precision-medicine-in-multiple-myeloma/
  2. https://www.washingtonpost.com/national/health-science/scientists-call-for-a-halt-to-genetically-editing-embryos-rebuke-chinese-researcher/2018/11/29/16d5b602-f328-11e8-bc79-68604ed88993_story.html?utm_term=.8c66033d827b
  3. https://knpr.org/npr/2018-11/chinese-scientist-says-hes-first-create-genetically-modified-babies-using-crispr
  4. http://www.globaltimes.cn/content/1126725.shtml
  5. https://www.abc.net.au/news/2017-08-03/first-embryo-gene-repair-holds-promise-for-inherited-disease/8769416
  6. “My Letter to Lulu and Nana, the worldʼs First CRISPR Gene Edited Babies”, Medium.com 12/4/18,
  7. https://www.newsweek.com/gene-editing-chinese-scientist-he-jiankui-missing-house-arrest-1240749

Originally published at neutec.wordpress.com on December 6, 2018.

Husband for 49 years. Dad forever! Very lucky man.