The worlds of science-fiction and science-fact seem to collide when the subject turns to CRISPR.
That’s a type of “gene-editing” (illustrated here) which could lead to something very good – blocking genetic diseases. Or to some very bad forms of human engineering.
This debate has come up before, Alta Charo told the Television Critics Assoication recently. “Each time, we (ask): ‘Are we able to withstand the temptation to do things that are really destructive to the fabric of society and yet keep the value to prevent disease and help build families.”
She’s a University of Wisconsin professor, both a lawyer and a bioethicist. And she’s one of the key people in a compelling “Nova” season-opener, from 8-10 p.m. Wednesday (Sept. 9) on PBS.
Scientists have long worked on altering the make-up of plants. In recent years, however, CRISPR (an acronym for a lot of large words) has shown a way to alter DNA sequences, boosting mmunity.
All of this has emerged in recent years. In 2015, Jennifer Doudna (a Berkeley professor who appears in the film) and Emmanuelle Charpentier received the first of a string of international awards for their CRISPR work. There has been quick attention to the possibilities for:
– Evil. In 2017, Vladimir Putin discussed the possibility of molding supersoldiers who feel no pain or fear. That, he said, would be “scarier than a nuclear bomb.”
– Good. This might be a way to avert cystic fibrosis, Huntington’s disease, HIV or sickle-cell disorder.
Illustrating that last one, the film introduces David Sanchez, who has spent large portions of his childhood in hospitals.
“I have had sickle cell since I was born,” he told the TCA. He’s learned to accept it; now he’s an upbeat 17-year-old who’s working on becoming an animator. “I am not worried about (CRISPR),” he told the TCA, “but it is something that’s really good for the world.”
Most people are taking a cautious approach, but there are exceptions, Tshaka Cunninghman, a molecular biologist, told the TCA. “In China, you had a rogue scientist who actually used CRISPR to engineer babies, completely illegally and against all scientific norms.”
That was an HIV-prevention effort in twin embryos, she said, but it was nnsuccessful and halted. “It was a completely kind of rogue and crazy experiment.”
It offered a quick alert to the downside, Charo said. “He personifies the risks, because he went off-target and changed things he didn’t intend to change.”
She considers herself a “bio-optimist” about science. “I generally feel like we see progress – not fast enough and not enough and with tremendous inequities in terms of who gets to experience the progress around the world. But I do feel like we see a lot of progress.”
Still, that isn’t always what we expect. “I grew up with the internet,” said Adam Bolt, producer-director of the “Nova” film, “and thought, ‘I just can’t wait until I can gete very movie and all the knowledge in the world is at my fingertips.’”
The internet has delivered some of that … plus some bad things. Bolt said it might bes the parts “that aren’t the things that we worry about that are maybe the scariest.”