Just in case you were starting to get comfortable with the idea of a trial vaccine that instructs your cells to make bits of and pieces of a viral protein – scientists have upped their sci-fi game.
Dr Euan Ashley, a genetic scientist and professor at Stanford University, is creating what he calls a ‘superhero’ vaccine.
Far from being a pipe dream, he believes it could be ready for testing as early as 2026. His goal is to use genetic information harvested from people who are determined to have advantageous traits and use these fragments to repair DNA within the receiver’s genes.
Sound a bit like eugenics? Essentially, that’s what this is.
Superior human DNA is being fused with less desirable genetic material to protect or cure so far unavoidable genetic diseases.
“This has the potential to greatly reduce the burden of diseases with a genetic component such as Alzheimer’s disease, liver disease, coronary heart disease and associated conditions such as strokes, and vascular dementia.”
– Dr Ashley
As the founder of the Stanford Centre for Inherited Cardiovascular Disease’s Clinical Genomics Program, he is certainly no fringe crack-pot madman. His mission to develop the ‘superhero jab’ (as he calls it) comes from a genuine desire to help after he was inspired by noticing the statistical risks of conditions in different populations, something which has long been acknowledged in the medical community.
Dr Ashley said:
“One of those approaches is to use gene editing to change as little as one letter in the at risk person’s genome to make them more resistant to disease. At the moment, these ‘resilience’ genes have been identified for heart disease, for Alzheimer’s disease, and for liver disease. But in the future we might discover people resistant to a whole host of human diseases.”
Taking this idea, Dr Ashley hopes that the superhero vaccine could eventually create an injectable blueprint to re-write weak or damaged DNA.
Editing our own DNA is about as close as humanity has come to playing God, and we are doing it while remaining largely in the dark about the exact nature of our DNA. We know what some of it does, but there are enormous gaps in our knowledge, particularly when it comes to the unintended consequences associated with changing our genetic material.
Our bodies are not machines with straight forward code. We are living creatures with a clever, defensive body that reacts to interference. Scientists have illustrated this point in animal experiments.
Birds are the dinosaurs’ living relative. They are dinosaurs, technically speaking, and still contain the genetic ghosts of their slightly scarier ancestors. Having learned absolutely no lessons from Jurassic Park, a group of scientists managed to fuss around with a chicken embryo, causing it to grow a velociraptor-style snout and palate. Essentially, they hunted down and isolated a group of genes unique to beaked animals and turned them off. It was not a simple of matter of ‘beak-on / beak-off’ – the skeletal structure around it also changed in response.
“These weren’t drastic modifications. They are far less weird than many breeds of chicken developed by chicken hobbyists and breeders. The rest of the animal looked OK, but one needs to think about this carefully from an ethical point of view.”
– Bhart-Anjan Bhullar
He wasn’t the only one playing with chickens. Six researches at the University of Chile led by Joao Botelho managed to create an embryo with dinosaur-like feet.
“By inhibiting early maturation of a leg of the chicken embryo, the leg reverts to the shape that dinosaurs’ legs had. The result is a chicken embryo with dinosaur legs.”
– Alexander Vargas
They were manipulating a different gene called the Indian hedgehog homolog gene. It proved that our genetic past sits dormant and can be re-awakened.
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These guys didn’t hatch any of their experiments either, which is probably for the best. 2021 has enough problems without tiny, angry, mutant Cretaceous birds.
China, who always push the ethical boundaries into Defcon 1, have decided to become global leaders in human-animal hybrids. In 2018, Chinese scientist He Jiankui announced at the Second International Summit on Human Genome Editing in Hong Kong that he had created the world’s first gene-edited human babies. This was done by using the CRISPR/Cas-9 gene editing tool to make deliberate and accurate modifications within living cells by cutting sections of DNA.
“In this case, He targeted a gene which produces a protein on the surface of cells called CCR5. The HIV virus uses this protein to attach to and infect the cell. He’s idea was to genetically change CCR5 so that HIV can no longer infect cells, making the girls resistant to the virus.”
– from theconversation.com
Three children were born from this experiment with edited genomes, creating outrage within the scientific community, even in China. According to He, he was attempting to mimic a genetic mutation found within 10% of Europeans, protecting them from HIV. No one has any idea what kind of other mutations his alterations might have caused. Even if he was 100% successful in his goal, the genes he disabled to stop HIV are suspected to protect against the West Nile virus. In other words, humans have genetic diversity – different weaknesses and strengths – to give the overall population a chance at survival.
There is no perfect human genome.
Despite He being sent to jail, Russian scientist Denis Rebrikov is continuing He’s work by editing eggs to fix the gene that causes people to be born deaf. While his research is being conducted under heavy scrutiny and Rebrikov has said that he will not advance to putting eggs in a womb without permission – it is likely that he will eventually be allowed to proceed.
Why do we praise gene editing via vaccine in adults and look on in horror when it is done to embryos? Humans are known for having arbitrary and often conflicting ethics.
Whether we should play around with human DNA is a question civilisation will no doubt side-step for generations. There will be arguments about when and if it is appropriate, particularly in the case of dying patients with nothing to lose. Saving the occasional sick adult with gene therapy is a very different conversation to randomly and arbitrarily altering healthy human beings to fit into a ‘desirable’ genetic outcome. As for a genuine eugenics program, that is something we have to watch extremely carefully because there will always be some idiot in government with delusions of genetic super soldiers.
Before we get anywhere near this discussion, what we must consider is whether or not we know enough about gene editing to do any of this – particularly when we talk about taking vaccines to market.
Whether you have cut-and-pasted DNA or vaccine vandalised DNA, the outcomes of playing with DNA are largely big, dangling question marks. Human genetic diversity is our Plan A for survival. If we begin deliberately homogenising ourselves in a misguided quest for perfection and immortality, the odds are, we’ll go the same way as the dinosaurs.
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Alexandra Marshall (@ellymelly on social media) is the host of "Curtain Call", a Good Sauce show exploring the leading personalities in the culture war. She writes on liberty, philosophy and geopolitics. You can find her on Twitter or read her articles over at her blog.
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