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.