Manifest Destiny in the New Frontier

September 24, 2015 § 1 Comment

Americans have always been a curious lot.  We have felt this desire to “boldly go where no man has gone before” from the time of the late 19th century when the idea of “Manifest Destiny” was coined, an idea reflecting our belief that we were destined to explore and colonize the new realm of the wild west, to the mid-20th century when we declared space as the “final frontier” and proceeded to conquer and explore that frontier to the best of our abilities, becoming the first nation to put its citizens on the moon.  However, contrary to our grandparents’ belief, space was not the “final frontier,” but rather another frontier still awaits us, ready for exploration and new discovery; a frontier not around us, but inside of us: our own genes.

We have come a long way from simple Mendelian Genetics and are now at the point where we can manipulate DNA in many different ways: inducing somatic cells to re-instate their undifferentiated form creating induced pluripotent stem cells, splicing genes of one organism into another creating chimeras, implanting favorable genes into crops with genetic engineering technology, and much more.  And even after all of this discovery, there is still so much we have yet to determine, so much unchartered territory left to explore.  Within our genes lie the secrets of our personality and the template for our appearance; but our genes also hold our genetic diseases and predispositions, oncogenes that can induce the formation of tumors and mutations that can lead to fatal diseases like Huntington’s Disease.  Within our genes lies the code that makes us who we are in every positive and negative way, serving as the unchanging template that ultimately steers our life.  But what if we could change this template? What if we no longer were forced to serve as slaves to our genes but rather could manipulate them for the better?

Human genetic manipulation is a frontier many have been afraid to touch for years due to a host of ethical issues. However, developments have still occurred.  Now, the technology is available for the groundbreaking research to occur, and the ethics of the idea seems to be the only thing holding us back.  Recently, the CRISPR Cas-9 protein, found in bacteria and used as a kind of immune system against viruses, has been brought up as a potential genome editing protein we could use in prenatal gene therapy.  Prenatal gene therapy is a medical procedure where a genome editing protein with high specificity, such as CRISPR, is implanted into an embryo and used to either remove or correct a mutation that would lead to a terrible, and likely lethal, genetic disease within a child.  Performing gene therapy on an embryo rather than a child already born would be very advantageous because the embryo has much less cells necessary to target and the cells that receive the therapy will eventually divide into other cells that will all contain the corrected gene.  Such therapy could be used to correct genetic diseases so that a child is born healthy and further, if the disease was originally heritable the next generation would also not be subject to that disease.  With this technology, we could eliminate Huntington’s Disease from the population just as we eliminated smallpox.

However, without proper research, it is impossible to make such miracles a reality.  Many can easily see how great the benefits of human genetic manipulation would be, but become squeamish when research is actually going to be done and argue that the costs will be too great and that even once we have this technology that it is a “slippery slope” until it is used for the wrong things.  Ultimately, these are risks we are going to need to take.  The ultimate benefit human genetic manipulating technology would have on future generations outweigh any initial costs associated with research.  It is not like we are very long away from great breakthroughs anyways; with research unimpeded it is likely we would be to the point where there were little to no real costs or great failures within a few years.  And with proper regulation, the “slippery slope” will gain more friction and we will stay closer to the original therapeutic goals.  Also, Once the technology is more established, it will become cheaper and more readily available, just as computers did.  Did you know that the first human genome cost $7 billion to sequence and today we can sequence an entire genome for just $1000?  As more research is performed and more technologies invented, cost decreases, so the idea of socioeconomic inequalities in gene therapy and related genetic medicine will eventually become null.

Even with all the benefits of further genetic research, still many people find that they just have a negative feeling in their stomachs even still when it comes to the idea of manipulating the human genome.  Tell me though, if you found out that your unborn daughter was going to die before she turned twenty of a fatal genetic disease, would you not want to help her and give her the full life she deserved?  If you found out your son was going to suffer from a condition that required him to constantly revisit the hospital and limited his ability to live his life to the fullest possibility, would you not want to give him a chance to live an unimpeded life that he could enjoy to the fullest?  If you found out that you were a carrier for a recessive genetic disease, not knowing whether your partner was a carrier as well, would you want to have to worry about your children having that disease and possibly choose to refrain from having children or would you rather continue with your plans for a family knowing that no matter what your child will be healthy?

Genetic manipulation is what allows for there to even be a choice in each of the scenarios above.  Right now, many people are faced with only one option, and it is not the better of the two.  We could change lives and save lives, but the stigma against this great technology is preventing such.  Such an opportunity would not have been presented were we as a human race not to take advantage of it.  We have a manifest destiny in the new frontier of genetics, and it is about time we started properly exploring.

-CRW

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§ One Response to Manifest Destiny in the New Frontier

  • Thanks for an obviously well-researched and cogent article, CRW. You clearly have a working familiarity with the perceived “frontier” of inquiry into genetic alteration methods, and you present a compelling argument for the importance of advancing this frontier.

    However, I couldn’t help but notice the interesting lineage within which you placed this scientific study: within the notion “Manifest Destiny.” While I can understand the immediate parallels that might seem initially attractive, I simply cannot avoid the thought that perhaps the use of this terminology leads directly to what may be the single most convincing argument against unbridled scientific pursuits within our neoliberal economic framework.

    Even though many grade school history notebooks might argue otherwise, at its core, “Manifest Destiny” is a destructive notion. While it may have guided the formation of the United States as a political and geographic entity, it did so at the utter expense of Native peoples and on the backs of people of color. Manifest Destiny is well-branded annihilation and greed, all wrapped up in the arrogant notion that it was all simply fated, all other (kinder, gentler, and more equitable) possibilities be damned.

    Likewise, given that genetic alteration advancements is here framed within this objectionable framework, it’s hard not to worry about the disparate impacts such advancements would have across social hierarchies, especially if the advancement of such treatments as being their own justification. While you claim that “the idea of socioeconomic inequalities in gene therapy and related genetic medicine will eventually become null” due to decreasing prices, I simply do not share your faith in our iteration of capitalism to render this idea null. Frankly, it’s hard to identify much of anywhere in our economic system where socioeconomic inequalities don’t play a vital role in access. The most obvious parallel to the topic at hand, though, in my estimation, is the exorbitant cost of my prescription drugs for many Americans, especially those under-insured. The ability of the wealthy to afford such costs help them to live a higher quality of life — whose to say that genetic treatments won’t simply follow such a comparable pathway?

    However, if it were only the treatments that were likely with this brand of genetic scientific inquiry, then one could argue this critique is simply a misguided sub-critique of a broken healthcare system. However, genetic alterations are more than that — they also pose the possibility of enhancement, rather than just treatment. These enhancements would almost certainly retain their financial heftiness even longer than the treatments, as they would be framed as elective. However, if these genetic enhancements became so marked that economic or social competition within a capitalist framework virtually necessitates such improvements, then their “electivity” might become only a nominal notion.

    Perhaps you think this is dystopian iteration of the future, and you are likely correct — I tend to find dystopia more believable than utopia, or even a more ambivalent future. However, this entire dystopian future could be justified by a notion such as “Manifest Destiny,” a notion peddled by the privilege in order to wash the blood from the hands over their own actions by simply claiming that those actions were simply required due to some sort of larger universal force.

    I’m not a Luddite — I believe that new genetic treatments (and even new enhancements) can be an exciting part of the human future. However, I simply cannot blindly believe that such advancements will be best handled within this particular economic moment. I want these treatments to be a universal tool, not a weapon of the privileged, and I worry that, in our particular present, the former is impossible and the latter is inevitable.

    –Lucas Hilliard

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