Map of life expectancy at birth from Global Education Project.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Paging Dr. Bashir

For those of you who don't know, which I presume is all of you, Dr. Bashir was the genetically enhanced chief medical officer on Deep Space Nine. He was something of a sci-fi cliche: genetically enhancing human beings, in the future, is generally illegal and/or morally repugnant, and the genetically enhanced face discrimination, banishment, imprisonment or termination. Dr. Bashir had to keep his true nature a secret, although as I recall the commander ferreted it out in one episode. The way it works in the Star Trek universe is that his parents were criminals, but he merely faced ostracism and general hatred.

Anyway, today we are confronting mass hysteria over the news that some Top Docs (as the tabloids always call them) in New York inserted a gene into a human zygote. Various moral watchdog groups are viewing with alarm and slippery sloping and demanding public debate and whatnot, on the grounds that this is a step toward making a Dr. Bashir.

So let's take this in two pieces: Is it? And what if it were?

Part one: It isn't. The investigators inserted the gene into a genetically defective zygote that was incapable of normal development. Yes, they could have put it into a normal zygote but either way, the experiment was trivial. Their stated purpose was to demonstrate a way of tracing the ancestry of a clone of Human Embryonic Stem Cells, as a research tool. (Remember from an earlier episode that a clone doesn't necessarily mean an organism which is genetically identical to another, but as in this case, it can simply mean a line of cells of common descent.) This, in turn, is in pursuit of therapeutic uses of HESCs, not reproductive cloning.

I'm sure I don't have to tell you that if somebody is given organs or tissues created from HESCs, the genes of those replacement parts are not passed on to the recipients' offspring, if any.

Now, it is true that if someone were to insert genes into a zygote, and then allow that zygote to develop into a human being, those genes would be included in that person's germ cells, hence in his or her gametes, and could be passed on. But right now nobody is trying to do that, and this little experiment is of no importance in advancing such a project. Of course you can insert genes into a zygote, you can insert genes into any kind of human cell, big whoop.

However, right now, we don't know of any single genes which we could insert into a zygote and bring about any particular desired enhancement of the resulting person. Nor is it clear how such an experiment could be performed, because the whole problem is, you don't actually know what would happen. So it would never be approved. Maybe a mad scientist in a secret laboratory will try it some day, but that has been made no more likely by the experiment at issue. So get a grip, folks.

Part 2: Ahh, now this is a matter of considerable controversy among those who worry about weird stuff that might conceivably happen some day. It's a much more difficult ethical problem than it usually appears to people at first glance, no matter which side they take. Dr. Bashir was engineered to be super smart; he had to conceal his actual intellectual abilities to stay out of trouble. (Hey, so do you and I.) But people also worry about making 8 foot tall people for the NBA superstardom market, or maybe even giving people wings or X-ray vision or something.

Now this is worth talking about, in part because it connects seamlessly with some problems that are not fanciful at all, but are happening right now. So I will discuss it anon. Meanwhile, anybody care to weigh in?

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