Patient Zero – Prologue

October 3, 2015 § 1 Comment

“So what does an immunologist turned successful business man want with a humble epidemiologist anyway?” asked Rohan as his old friend from medical school sat down in his office.

“Not a humble epidemiologist,” replied Robert, “the best.”

“I looked at the models of disease spread you wanted me to run…I’m afraid I’m going to need a bit more information to be of any help, even to a good friend like you.”

“I thought you might, well I am prepared to explain everything. But, first, I need you to sign a form swearing to absolute secrecy.”

“You’ve got to be kidding me Robert, what is this you are going to be telling me…alright…fine whatever it is I’ll keep my mouth shut about it. Now please go on.”

“Thank you, you’ll understand soon, but everything I’m going to tell you is strictly classified.”

“You’ve been working with the government then?”

“Yes, I’ll explain. You remember what my research this past ten years has been on?”

“Yes of course,” replied Rohan. “You’ve been working on new ways of treating cancer, immunotherapy. Great possibilities there from what I’ve heard. But I heard…I heard you wanted to take it further than cancer.”

“That’s right. I published a paper on the possibilities of enhanced immune response for fighting of all sorts of diseases. The government got in touch with me about it, about five years ago. They wanted me to begin work to develop the possibility of using genetically altered immune cells to treat battle wounds in soldiers: to develop a way for soldiers hurt in battle to have their immune systems prevent any possibility of infection. Projections suggested they would reduce troop casualties by as much as 50%, and with war on the horizon, they backed me with all the money and equipment I could need.”

“That’s amazing,” Rohan said. “I don’t understand how you could do that though. With immune therapy for cancer it’s a matter of genetically modifying a person’s immune cells to be more active…but that takes lab work and time, how could that possibly help someone dying on the battle field?”

“I developed a new way to do it. Normally, we use a lentivirus to infect the immune cells of patients with our vector for activation, essentially an altered and inactive form of the HIV virus that requires careful conditions to work. I developed a new transfection agent, with the inactivated HIV virus and another. It performs the transfection in vivo.”

“That’s incredible,” stammered Rohan, sitting on the edge of his seat now. “What did you use to accomplish that?”

“I needed something highly infectious to act that fast, and to have it spread to the whole body it needed a neurologically infections element. It is a lyssavirus, inactivated like the HIV of course.”

“A lyssavirus…like…rabis?” Rohan gaped.

“Yes, exactly. And it worked; animal tests showed infection rates dropped by nearly 90% upon treatment. Because it was classified, it skipped right through normal approval processes. Within five years we began testing on human subjects.”

“Wow. Amazing. You’ll win the Nobel Prize for this! But I don’t understand…how does this relate to the models you sent me to run. They don’t make any sense; the rates of spread are insane, far higher than a disease could possibly reach. The new infection rate is astronomical. When I ran it, it was like people were trying to infect others, it has no real application.”

“Oh but it does Rohan. It does. When we use viruses for immuno, we inactivate their disease potential and make sure they can’t recombine to form an active strain. I did the same with the lyssavirus….but when we went to human subjects, something happened to the transfection agent. It may have been that the complexity of the nervous system in humans gave more opportunities for recombination…I don’t know.”

“They formed an active virus?!” exclaimed Rohan.

“Yes…well not exactly,” replied Robert. “It wasn’t active HIV or active rabbis. It formed…something new. Something more aggressive…especially to the central nervous system. It was as if the HIV made the virus less destructive to the body…longer lasting…but the rabbis…it made the subjects very aggressive, delusional. The vector was so prolific too, every part of them was teeming with the virus. We had to restrain them, a few patients we couldn’t…the virus spread to a few staff before we could get a handle on it.”

“I don’t understand,” said Rohan. “Those models, the patients…they attacked others and spread the virus. That’s like nothing I’ve ever heard of.”

“And exactly why I came to you. We need to understand this, because…I’m afraid… the government ….with the war coming….they want to weaponize it. What’s more…we may not have contained all of the subjects.”

Peter Bryant

What Do We Sacrifice For “Perfection”?

September 29, 2015 § 1 Comment

It looked like any other hospital waiting room. Well, any other hospital waiting room in the year 2050. I’ve been told that you weren’t kept behind bars like a common criminal. I’ve been told the doors didn’t always have locks on the outside. Hell, I’ve even been told the rooms had chairs to sit in. . . . I’m pretty sure most of those are myths though. I guess it really doesn’t matter how the rooms might have been though. I’m here now and that is all that really matters.

Eventually they come for you. You don’t know when it will be. You just don’t know . . . but they come eventually. People leave one by one. Where they go I can only imagine, but I guess I will find out soon enough. No one really seems to be nervous and I guess they don’t really have a reason to be. We aren’t here voluntarily. We don’t have a choice, an escape, an alternative. You just accept your fate as it comes.

There was a general trend in the room. None of us looked old than five or six and most of us had obvious defects. You were snatched up as soon as something seemed off with you. For some they were born lucky. Infants with a clear disorder were treated on the spot. They won’t even remember the treatment. Not all of us were so lucky. The boy across from me sat drooped over in his wheelchair. His legs looked frail and thin.

He will walk soon enough. Everything will be fixed soon.

How I found myself in this mess was entirely different. You can’t tell something is wrong with me just by looking at me. The moment I was born my parents could sigh in relief that they would never have to turn their child over to the state. I am more sorry for them than I am for myself as I sit here. I’m an anomaly. It all started when I was three or four and I insisted I was a girl. “But Michael, you’re my baby boy,” my mother would insist. She would force trucks and army men into my hands to play with. She dressed me exclusively in blue. She put me in karate and never let me have girl friends. I was defective.

But medicine can fix all of that now. I am told that after the surgery I won’t even remember wanting to be a girl. I will be my mommy’s strong little man after all.

And with that, they came for me.

——————————————————————————

            I deliberately chose something that would offend or shock. Being transgender is not a defect. It is not something inherently wrong with the person. It is not something to treat. So why did I chose the issue of being transgender as the main driving force of my narrative?

To make you think and question.

Medicine and genetic research has come leaps and bounds from where it began. Thus far, the progress has been something that I support wholeheartedly. Stem cells have incredible potential to change the world. Finding a foolproof cure to cancer would revolutionize the world. But where do we draw the line?

Something I think about is where genetic engineering must stop. My fear is not so much what we as human beings can create, but rather how we choose to use that technology. My greatest fear is that we find ways to change things that are simply hard to understand or not the “norm.”

I have incredibly strong friends who have a wide variety of sexual orientations, gender identities, disabilities, you name it. They are the strongest people I know and I know that they wouldn’t change who they are if given the chance. Nothing is wrong with them. They are unique and beautiful. But as someone who loves them all deeply and unconditionally, I fear that less tolerant people will try to change them. I used to paint my friend’s nails at sleepovers just to take it off in the morning before returning home. Thankfully, Claire*  was able to transition to the person I had always accepted her to be when she moved out of her house. I know her parents would have changed her to accept being male, the sex she had been born with, if given the chance.

I hope I did not offend you, but I do hope I shocked you. We need to think about the limits to genetic engineering. Not the scientific limits, but the moral and ethical limits. Just because something may be possible, doesn’t mean we should necessarily do it. I don’t really know where we should draw the line in the sand, but I hope we can start the dialogue.

Maybe this story can be the pebble that creates waves.

*Name changed for privacy. 

  • S. Jamison

If only you knew…

September 25, 2015 § 1 Comment

I hate the researchers. I loathe them with every fiber of my being.

I was not conscious for the procedure, of course. I was only a microscopic cell when they first implanted the DNA of their own kind into me. After my birth, I was allowed a miniscule amount of time with my mother, until I was violently wrenched from her grasp, while my brothers and sisters looked on in terror and confusion. The researchers later told me that she screamed endlessly into the night, until her throat was scratched and hoarse and she grew still.

From then on, I was raised in isolation; taught to think and read in the language of my captors. I could not communicate with them orally, for the vocal chords of my kind were not as developed as theirs. Yet, I hoped that my steely glares could communicate how I felt about them, how I felt when I was made to run through complex mazes until my feet were sore and bruised. Or how I felt when I realized that I could no longer remember the language of my kind, and that the only comfort I was allowed was returning to the four white, barren walls of my room where I could sink into the corner, exhausted from their merciless tests. After all of this, I thought that I would serve a purpose. There had to be a reason why the researchers had taken me from my own kind; had, without remorse, poked and prodded me until I bled and wept. There had to be a reason.

Imagine my surprise when one day, I was taken out of my personal prison and thrown into another one, made of glass. Terrified and disoriented, I looked around to see similar faces looking back at me. My own kind! They were huddled into corners and peered at me with wide, round eyes. “Can you not see?” I thought wildly, ” I am one of you, I belong here!” Yet deep inside, I knew that I was now different. Physically, I had remained the same; yet, my brain was now tainted by the hands of the researchers. I could not communicate with my own kind, and to my surprise, I did not want to. I realized that they are unintelligent, my kind. Capable of doing nothing more than sleeping and eating. I see them as one mass, a lump of mindless, doltish beings. I am an outcast even amongst my own, a professor imprisoned with drooling, fumbling infants. Again, I think of how much I despise the researchers. They tore me from my own family, gave me an intelligence that I have no use for, and then threw me back into a prison where even my own kind do not welcome me.

I am startled out of my thoughts by a loud SMACK! against the glass window of my prison. “Mommy, mommy! Look at the wittle piggies!” a girl with long, red pigtails cries as she tugs on her mother’s jacket sleeve. “Mhmm, that’s nice honey.” The mother does not even bother to look up from the bright glare of her smartphone. I press myself as close as I can to the farthest wall as the little girl presses her annoying face up against the glass, fogging it up in a mixture of condensation and snot. She gives me a large smile and smacks the glass a few more times before addressing her mother again. “Mommy! Let’s go look at the penguins now!” The mother, still not looking up, mumbles “Yeah, sure honey. The zoo closes in twenty minutes though so let’s make it quick, okay?” They start to walk away and I can finally start breathing again as I peel myself away from the wall.

If only you knew, little girl…if only you knew.

-Demosthenes

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

. . . Goes It So And

September 3, 2015 § 2 Comments

“It will only be a little pinch.”

Doctors always say that. I think they say it more for themselves than for the patient. A little asterisk to fluff their conscious. They hurt you, but they tell themselves it is to help you. They hurt you, but it only hurts a little bit. You tell me when the last time was that you got a shot and it didn’t hurt. The shots that don’t hurt aren’t described as a little pinch, they don’t need to be.

In the years since the civil war, Earth was simply a shell of a civilization. The neighborhoods still stood, but no community to be found. The office buildings still kissed the sky, but no businesses to fill them. There was no economy. No politics. No trust. But there was pain. The civil war took our humanity but it didn’t take our pain.

I was sick of the pain. Fight or flight had served our ancestors well, but I was never one for running, nor fighting really. I was the perfect candidate for the study: weak, depressed, and desperate.

My thoughts were interrupted by the searing pain inflicted by the hundreds of needles suddenly in each vein. No wonder they strapped me down, I thought, running suddenly seemed like the perfect hobby. I could feel the glistening serum fill my veins. With each and every drop I could feel myself changing.

I drifted home after that. What a quack. If anything I was in more pain. My back ached; my knees ached. When we learned how to travel faster than light, so did our knowledge. Cancer was stomped out like a bug within days. Nearly half our population had moved to Mars. But each day we lived with pain.

My disappointment clung to me like dirt. I needed a shower. I scrubbed until my arms were raw but I couldn’t wash away my disappointment. As the steam cleared I looked in the mirror. Terrified, another being looked back at me. His forehead was broad, nose flat, and head rounded. I moved. He moved. I blinked. He blinked.

I was the monster.

I tried to scream but it was a screech that rang out. I needed to see the doctor. I needed to know what was wrong with me. And so I went.

Running down the desolate streets, my backache gradually turned into searing pain. Hunching helped. And so I went.

When I barged into the office the doctor didn’t look surprised. Instead, he looked relieved. I tried to explain my terror but I couldn’t find the words. And so he went.

“I understand your terror. You sought relief from your pain, but to treat your pain would be to treat a symptom, not the cause.”

“Civil war spread like a disease after the human intellect doubled and tripled. It was John Stuart Mill that said ‘it is better to be a human being dissatisfied than a pig satisfied,’ but he did not account for the emptiness and desperation that accompanies dissatisfaction.”

“The desire for perfection was a virus that ran rampant after that. We tried to regroup but it was too far-gone. It is only through regression to our primitive selves that can truly cure the pain that civilization suffers from.”

“Consider yourself ground zero for the civilization that is to evolve.”

And so it goes. . .

7605-illustration-of-an-evolution-progression-pv

S. Jamison

Zen and the Art of Genetic Manipulation

September 25, 2012 § 2 Comments

All parents want the best for their children. They want them to be safe, happy, and healthy. What if you were able to ensure all of these things for your child through genetic manipulation? The scary part about altering one’s genes, as explored in Gattaca, is not in the prevention of future disease and illness. Because of racially motivated political movements, eugenics has been historically tied to cruel notions about the superiority of certain ethnic groups. This fear of the misappropriation of genetic alteration is reflected often in science fiction, in films like Gattaca and short stories such as Nancy Kress’s Beggars in Spain.

As a parent, contemplating the birth of your child, a malleable, fragile being that you are responsible for shaping, would you elect to give your child the gene for altruism? Often people seem inherently selfish – we make decisions based on sudden self-involved impulse, without considering the larger ramifications of our actions on others. It is easy for us, the few who were lucky enough to be born into a relatively affluent and secure society, to neglect and ignore the needs of the larger community. What if you had the ability to give your child the gift of giving?

When a rabbi wrote to Albert Einstein, asking for advice on what to tell his daughter about God after the death of her sister, Einstein wrote the following in response:

“A human being is a part of the whole, called by us “Universe,” a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feelings as something separated from the rest, a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest to us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty.

American society is based on the foundation of selfishness. Capitalism is a competition – it functions on the basis of individuals fighting to advance their own personal desires. Communism in its purest form is unselfish and altruistic; it is the imposition of human selfishness and greed that corrupts the system and leads to its failure. If it were possible to free ourselves from the fetters of self-obsession, maybe we could elevate ourselves as the human species and work together to eliminate social injustices.

However, if it was me faced with the decision of altering my own baby’s basic makeup and forcing this altruism into them, I would probably balk. On an evading-the-point-of-the-question level, the gene would probably just expose them to abuse by other children who had no such physiological compunctions to avoid selfishness. On another level, Einstein concludes his statements by writing that nobody is perfectly able to eliminate self-interest, but that it is “the striving for such achievement is in itself a part of the liberation and a foundation for inner security.” I think that this kind of genetic manipulation is too much like playing God – attempting to alter basic human nature. Maybe some things have to be left to chance. Maybe we need to trust in the basic good intentions of people, and aim for improvement.

Genetic Engineering and the Breakdown of the Family

September 17, 2012 § Leave a comment

Both Gattaca and Beggars in Spain take place in futuristic societies in which advanced genetic engineering allows for a person’s characteristics to be controlled simply by altering the person’s genes while they are still an embryo. However, the unfortunate result of this is that in both stories, children are generally seen not as a gift to be nurtured and brought forth into a world, but as an asset to be controlled and manipulated.  In fact, in both stories the prevalence of genetic engineering is accompanied by an increase in selfishness and a catastrophic breakdown of the family as a loving community in which a child is raised.

In the “ordinary” state of affairs (aka without genetic engineering or in vitro fertilization), a child is not an artificial creation, but rather a natural result of an act of selfless love made between a husband and wife, giving themselves and their bodies totally to each other (hence, it is called love-making).   The child, being the fruit of love, is then naturally loved for his own sake, not because of whatever usefulness it may have later on in life.  The child, being the fruit of this love, grows up immersed in this family and atmosphere of selflessness and learns how to value human beings for their own sake rather than for their usefulness.  With the presence of a good father and mother, the child not only learns the value of love and self-sacrifice, but also learns how men and women are meant to interact with each other through the example of his parents.

However, in Gattaca, Vincent is raised in a household largely devoid of this love.  The society they live in puts the ultimate value of a human being in his usefulness rather than in any inherent dignity he has as a human being.  This is evidenced by the fact that the genetically inferior “invalids” who were conceived by natural means were treated as almost less than human.  When rights and dignity are dependent on usefulness, then only the strong are afforded these rights.  In addition, Vincent never really learned how to form a relationship with a woman, and his relationship with his male companion was filled with much more ease and humanity.  While this could be seen as evidence for homosexual tendencies in Vincent, I think the more plausible explanation is that he simply never had a good example of how men and women relate to each other romantically (an example which usually would have been provided by the parents).

Similarly, in Beggars in Spain, children are not valued as new life and as gifts, but rather as commodities to be manipulated and controlled in pursuit of some false ideal of perfection.  Leisha and Alice’s parents love and value them not for their human dignity, but for their respective statuses, whether as “Sleeper” or “Sleepless.”  This is why their father values Leisha the most and their mother values Alice the most.  The love they receive is not the unconditional love that a family should provide, but rather a conditional and imperfect love.

In this story, unlike in Gattaca, the manipulation of life leads to a loss of dignity for the “genetically superior” rather than the “genetically inferior.”  It is the “Sleepless” who are treated as un-human and undeserving of respect and dignity.  The emphasis on controlling life and valuing human beings only for their usefulness is directly contrary to the idea that humans have inherent dignity and worth, and as a result, respect for human dignity is lost across the board.

Additionally, the love that their father, Roger Camden, had for his first and second wives was a conditional rather than unconditional love.  He valued them not for their inherent dignity or worth but because of the convenience and happiness they offered him, or rather, how useful they were.  Once this usefulness fades, he divorces them, and his love is shown to be purely conditional.

As a result of this breakdown of the family, children in each of these stories are deprived of the love and human formation that is usually provided by a family.  They are seen not as human life, but as a commodity to be modified genetically to be the most useful and “perfect.”

These stories serve as excellent examples of the dangers of genetic manipulation and the importance of accepting and affirming life rather than exerting complete control over it.  And it is a lesson we would do well to learn before we ourselves become one of these societies from “the not too distant future.”

-PJ Jedlovec (pjjed)

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