‘I’ ON CULTURE
The new book The Code Breaker by Walter Isaacson is a fascinating look at what is going on in the very quickly advancing world of biology. IT is focused on Nobel Prize winner Jennifer Doudna, along with her friends and rivals in the field of dealing with CRISPR, the tool that allows us to break up our biological code and was behind the very quick creation of both the tests and several of the vaccines for COVID-19. A great read!
Most people who have paid any attention at all know about the importance of DNA. But DNA, although it defines us in many ways, is not as much of a tool as RNA, a similar substance and one that can be molded to make changes. The Pfizer and Moderna vaccines use the techniques learned over the past decade that allowed the scientists, teamed with pharmaceutical companies, to create vaccines within a few months. When President Donald Trump in April 2020 predicted we would have a vaccine by the end of the year and be well into vaccinating Americans a year from that time, some laughed at that as a ridiculous campaign promise. Several scientists predicted it could take a year and a half before a vaccine was even ready. But thanks to Doudna and the others, a vaccine was in hand in only a couple of months. Much of the past year was taken up with the required testing.
And these vaccines are just the start. There are ongoing projects now (actually predating the COVID-19 push) against Huntington’s disease, sickle cell problems and even HIV. I guess just about everyone would cheer the ending of those diseases. Although, interestingly, the gene that brings sickle cell also protects against malaria and West Nile virus.
The most fascinating element to me is that humans now actually have a tool that can allow us to change our genetic destiny. Few of us would argue against what are called somatic changes, those that only affect us, particularly in terms of disease. If we could take in something that would change metabolisms to stop diabetes, it would save a fortune in medical costs as well as extending and improving lives. But the debate gets far trickier when we deal with changes that impact genetic lines. We know the dangers of drugs, alcohol and medications for parents, particularly pregnant mothers. What happens, though, if a parent can bring about a useful change to him or herself that might hamper a child born afterward? And what happens when we can start creating “designer babies?”
One of the less traumatic story lines of late was the punishment of wealthy and influential parents who bribed their children’s way into college. The pretense was that it was new, but top colleges are filled with children of the rich and powerful who have found legal ways to bend the rules.
So let us pretend we can make genetic changes right at the start of conception. It will be expensive. So, we can start off by assuming that changes made to prevent a whole lot of disease would be first on the list of changes desired. Many parents would take out mortgages to pay for that. But then how about brilliance? That costs more, a lot more. Add in good looks. Could we pay for all of that? What happens when only the very rich can afford the whole package? So their kids, aside from having all the money and connections, also live longer, look more attractive and are smarter than those with less money.
One temptation would be for the government to prevent that. There are two problems. One is that the rich people run the government. Don’t believe that? I have a bridge in New York City you might want to buy. The tax code is filled with special exceptions that have been bought. A whole list of rich corporations have not paid federal income taxes in years.
But beside the corruption, the government is often slow to respond. In Isaacson’s book, I learned that several different scientist/company projects were just about set with COVID-19 testing kits when the government declared “an emergency.” That meant that instead of relatively easy testing going out in early February, all of the groups had to fill out reams of paper to justify every step. Doudna’s group found out that weeks after they e-mailed the information in, the government had done nothing because a rule they had not known required a paper copy and a CD.
The real issue for this “brave new world” is who will decide the future? I’m not optimistic. But if you are interested in the science, read Isaacson’s book.