It’s possible there’s a more dramatic development in the field of contemporary gene-editing but it’s indisputable that CRISPR (clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats) -cas9 (CRISPR-associated 9 [protein]) ranks very highly indeed.
The technique, first discovered (or developed) in 2012, has brought recognition in the form of the 2020 Nobel Prize for Chemistry to CRISPR’s two discoverers, Emanuelle Charpentier and Jennifer Doudna.
The Nobel Prize in chemistry went to two researchers Wednesday [October 7, 2020] for a gene-editing tool that has revolutionized science by providing a way to alter DNA, the code of life—technology already being used to try to cure a host of diseases and raise better crops and livestock.
Emmanuelle Charpentier of France and Jennifer A. Doudna of the United States won for developing CRISPR-cas9, a very simple technique for cutting a gene at a specific spot, allowing scientists to operate on flaws that are the root cause of many diseases.
“There is enormous power in this genetic tool,” said Claes Gustafsson, chair of the Nobel Committee for Chemistry.
More than 100 clinical trials are underway to study using CRISPR to treat diseases, and “many are very promising,” according to Victor Dzau, president of the [US] National Academy of Medicine.
“My greatest hope is that it’s used for good, to uncover new mysteries in biology and to benefit humankind,” said Doudna, who is affiliated with the University of California, Berkeley, and is paid by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, which also supports The Associated Press’ Health and Science Department.
The prize-winning work has opened the door to some thorny ethical issues: When editing is done after birth, the alterations are confined to that person. Scientists fear CRISPR will be misused to make “designer babies” by altering eggs, embryos or sperm—changes that can be passed on to future generations.
Unusually for phys.org, this October 7, 2020 news item is not a simple press/news release reproduced in its entirety but a good overview of the researchers’ accomplishments and a discussion of some of the issues associated with CRISPR along with the press release at the end.
An October 7, 2020 article by Michael Grothaus for Fast Company provides a business perspective (Note: A link has been removed),
Needless to say, research by the two scientists awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry today has the potential to change the course of humanity. And with that potential comes lots of VC money and companies vying for patents on techniques and therapies derived from Charpentier’s and Doudna’s research.
One such company is Doudna’s Editas Medicine [according to my search, the only company associated with Doudna is Mammoth Biosciences, which she co-founded], while others include Caribou Biosciences, Intellia Therapeutics, and Casebia Therapeutics. Given the world-changing applications—and the amount of revenue such CRISPR therapies could bring in—it’s no wonder that such rivalry is often heated (and in some cases has led to lawsuits over the technology and its patents).
As Doudna explained in her book, A Crack in Creation: Gene Editing and the Unthinkable Power to Control Evolution, cowritten by Samuel H. Sternberg …, “… —but we could also have woolly mammoths, winged lizards, and unicorns.” And as for that last part, she made clear, “No, I am not kidding.”
Everybody makes mistakes and the reference to Editas Medicine is the only error I spotted. You can find out more about Mammoth Biosciences here and while Dr. Doudna’s comment, “My greatest hope is that it’s used for good, to uncover new mysteries in biology and to benefit humankind,” is laudable it would seem she wishes to profit from the discovery. Mammoth Biosciences is a for-profit company as can be seen at the end of the Mammoth Biosciences’ October 7, 2020 congratulatory news release,
About Mammoth Biosciences
Mammoth Biosciences is harnessing the diversity of nature to power the next-generation of CRISPR products. Through the discovery and development of novel CRISPR systems, the company is enabling the full potential of its platform to read and write the code of life. By leveraging its internal research and development and exclusive licensing to patents related to Cas12, Cas13, Cas14 and Casɸ, Mammoth Biosciences can provide enhanced diagnostics and genome editing for life science research, healthcare, agriculture, biodefense and more. Based in San Francisco, Mammoth Biosciences is co-founded by CRISPR pioneer Jennifer Doudna and Trevor Martin, Janice Chen, and Lucas Harrington. The firm is backed by top institutional investors [emphasis mine] including Decheng, Mayfield, NFX, and 8VC, and leading individual investors including Brook Byers, Tim Cook, and Jeff Huber.
Prize amount: 10 million Swedish kronor, to be shared equally between the Laureates.
In Canadian money that amount is $1,492,115.03 (as of Oct. 9, 2020 12:40 PDT when I checked a currency converter).
Ordinarily there’d be a mildly caustic comment from me about business opportunities and medical research but this is a time for congratulations to both Dr. Emanuelle Charpentier and Dr. Jennifer Doudna.
As so often happens in the sciences, now that the initial euphoria has expended itself problems (and solutions) with CRISPR ((clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats))-CAAS9 are being disclosed to those of us who are not experts. From an Oct. 3, 2017 article by Bob Yirka for phys.org,
A team of researchers from the University of California and the University of Tokyo has found a way to use the CRISPR gene editing technique that does not rely on a virus for delivery. In their paper published in the journal Nature Biomedical Engineering, the group describes the new technique, how well it works and improvements that need to be made to make it a viable gene editing tool.
CRISPR-Cas9 has been in the news a lot lately because it allows researchers to directly edit genes—either disabling unwanted parts or replacing them altogether. But despite many success stories, the technique still suffers from a major deficit that prevents it from being used as a true medical tool—it sometimes makes mistakes. Those mistakes can cause small or big problems for a host depending on what goes wrong. Prior research has suggested that the majority of mistakes are due to delivery problems, which means that a replacement for the virus part of the technique is required. In this new effort, the researchers report that they have discovered just a such a replacement, and it worked so well that it was able to repair a gene mutation in a Duchenne muscular dystrophy mouse model. The team has named the new technique CRISPR-Gold, because a gold nanoparticle was used to deliver the gene editing molecules instead of a virus.
An Oct. 2, 2017 article by Abby Olena for The Scientist lays out the CRISPR-CAS9 problems the scientists are trying to solve (Note: Links have been removed),
While promising, applications of CRISPR-Cas9 gene editing have so far been limited by the challenges of delivery—namely, how to get all the CRISPR parts to every cell that needs them. In a study published today (October 2) in Nature Biomedical Engineering, researchers have successfully repaired a mutation in the gene for dystrophin in a mouse model of Duchenne muscular dystrophy by injecting a vehicle they call CRISPR-Gold, which contains the Cas9 protein, guide RNA, and donor DNA, all wrapped around a tiny gold ball.
The authors have made “great progress in the gene editing area,” says Tufts University biomedical engineer Qiaobing Xu, who did not participate in the work but penned an accompanying commentary. Because their approach is nonviral, Xu explains, it will minimize the potential off-target effects that result from constant Cas9 activity, which occurs when users deliver the Cas9 template with a viral vector.
Duchenne muscular dystrophy is a degenerative disease of the muscles caused by a lack of the protein dystrophin. In about a third of patients, the gene for dystrophin has small deletions or single base mutations that render it nonfunctional, which makes this gene an excellent candidate for gene editing. Researchers have previously used viral delivery of CRISPR-Cas9 components to delete the mutated exon and achieve clinical improvements in mouse models of the disease.
“In this paper, we were actually able to correct [the gene for] dystrophin back to the wild-type sequence” via homology-directed repair (HDR), coauthor Niren Murthy, a drug delivery researcher at the University of California, Berkeley, tells The Scientist. “The other way of treating this is to do something called exon skipping, which is where you delete some of the exons and you can get dystrophin to be produced, but it’s not [as functional as] the wild-type protein.”
The research team created CRISPR-Gold by covering a central gold nanoparticle with DNA that they modified so it would stick to the particle. This gold-conjugated DNA bound the donor DNA needed for HDR, which the Cas9 protein and guide RNA bound to in turn. They coated the entire complex with a polymer that seems to trigger endocytosis and then facilitate escape of the Cas9 protein, guide RNA, and template DNA from endosomes within cells.
In order to do HDR, “you have to provide the cell [with] the Cas9 enzyme, guide RNA by which you target Cas9 to a particular part of the genome, and a big chunk of DNA, which will be used as a template to edit the mutant sequence to wild-type,” explains coauthor Irina Conboy, who studies tissue repair at the University of California, Berkeley. “They all have to be present at the same time and at the same place, so in our system you have a nanoparticle which simultaneously delivers all of those three key components in their active state.”
Olena’s article carries on to describe how the team created CRISPR-Gold and more.
Scientists at the University of California, Berkeley, have engineered a new way to deliver CRISPR-Cas9 gene-editing technology inside cells and have demonstrated in mice that the technology can repair the mutation that causes Duchenne muscular dystrophy, a severe muscle-wasting disease. A new study shows that a single injection of CRISPR-Gold, as the new delivery system is called, into mice with Duchenne muscular dystrophy led to an 18-times-higher correction rate and a two-fold increase in a strength and agility test compared to control groups.
CRISPR–Gold is composed of 15 nanometer gold nanoparticles that are conjugated to thiol-modified oligonucleotides (DNA-Thiol), which are hybridized with single-stranded donor DNA and subsequently complexed with Cas9 and encapsulated by a polymer that disrupts the endosome of the cell.
Since 2012, when study co-author Jennifer Doudna, a professor of molecular and cell biology and of chemistry at UC Berkeley, and colleague Emmanuelle Charpentier, of the Max Planck Institute for Infection Biology, repurposed the Cas9 protein to create a cheap, precise and easy-to-use gene editor, researchers have hoped that therapies based on CRISPR-Cas9 would one day revolutionize the treatment of genetic diseases. Yet developing treatments for genetic diseases remains a big challenge in medicine. This is because most genetic diseases can be cured only if the disease-causing gene mutation is corrected back to the normal sequence, and this is impossible to do with conventional therapeutics.
CRISPR/Cas9, however, can correct gene mutations by cutting the mutated DNA and triggering homology-directed DNA repair. However, strategies for safely delivering the necessary components (Cas9, guide RNA that directs Cas9 to a specific gene, and donor DNA) into cells need to be developed before the potential of CRISPR-Cas9-based therapeutics can be realized. A common technique to deliver CRISPR-Cas9 into cells employs viruses, but that technique has a number of complications. CRISPR-Gold does not need viruses.
In the new study, research lead by the laboratories of Berkeley bioengineering professors Niren Murthy and Irina Conboy demonstrated that their novel approach, called CRISPR-Gold because gold nanoparticles are a key component, can deliver Cas9 – the protein that binds and cuts DNA – along with guide RNA and donor DNA into the cells of a living organism to fix a gene mutation.
“CRISPR-Gold is the first example of a delivery vehicle that can deliver all of the CRISPR components needed to correct gene mutations, without the use of viruses,” Murthy said.
The study was published October 2  in the journal Nature Biomedical Engineering.
CRISPR-Gold repairs DNA mutations through a process called homology-directed repair. Scientists have struggled to develop homology-directed repair-based therapeutics because they require activity at the same place and time as Cas9 protein, an RNA guide that recognizes the mutation and donor DNA to correct the mutation.
To overcome these challenges, the Berkeley scientists invented a delivery vessel that binds all of these components together, and then releases them when the vessel is inside a wide variety of cell types, triggering homology directed repair. CRISPR-Gold’s gold nanoparticles coat the donor DNA and also bind Cas9. When injected into mice, their cells recognize a marker in CRISPR-Gold and then import the delivery vessel. Then, through a series of cellular mechanisms, CRISPR-Gold is released into the cells’ cytoplasm and breaks apart, rapidly releasing Cas9 and donor DNA.
CRISPR-Gold’s method of action (Click to enlarge).
A single injection of CRISPR-Gold into muscle tissue of mice that model Duchenne muscular dystrophy restored 5.4 percent of the dystrophin gene, which causes the disease, to the wild- type, or normal, sequence. This correction rate was approximately 18 times higher than in mice treated with Cas9 and donor DNA by themselves, which experienced only a 0.3 percent correction rate.
Importantly, the study authors note, CRISPR-Gold faithfully restored the normal sequence of dystrophin, which is a significant improvement over previously published approaches that only removed the faulty part of the gene, making it shorter and converting one disease into another, milder disease.
CRISPR-Gold was also able to reduce tissue fibrosis – the hallmark of diseases where muscles do not function properly – and enhanced strength and agility in mice with Duchenne muscular dystrophy. CRISPR-Gold-treated mice showed a two-fold increase in hanging time in a common test for mouse strength and agility, compared to mice injected with a control.
“These experiments suggest that it will be possible to develop non-viral CRISPR therapeutics that can safely correct gene mutations, via the process of homology-directed repair, by simply developing nanoparticles that can simultaneously encapsulate all of the CRISPR components,” Murthy said.
CRISPR in action: A model of the Cas9 protein cutting a double-stranded piece of DNA
The study found that CRISPR-Gold’s approach to Cas9 protein delivery is safer than viral delivery of CRISPR, which, in addition to toxicity, amplifies the side effects of Cas9 through continuous expression of this DNA-cutting enzyme. When the research team tested CRISPR-Gold’s gene-editing capability in mice, they found that CRISPR-Gold efficiently corrected the DNA mutation that causes Duchenne muscular dystrophy, with minimal collateral DNA damage.
The researchers quantified CRISPR-Gold’s off-target DNA damage and found damage levels similar to the that of a typical DNA sequencing error in a typical cell that was not exposed to CRISPR (0.005 – 0.2 percent). To test for possible immunogenicity, the blood stream cytokine profiles of mice were analyzed at 24 hours and two weeks after the CRISPR-Gold injection. CRISPR-Gold did not cause an acute up-regulation of inflammatory cytokines in plasma, after multiple injections, or weight loss, suggesting that CRISPR-Gold can be used multiple times safely, and that it has a high therapeutic window for gene editing in muscle tissue.
“CRISPR-Gold and, more broadly, CRISPR-nanoparticles open a new way for safer, accurately controlled delivery of gene-editing tools,” Conboy said. “Ultimately, these techniques could be developed into a new medicine for Duchenne muscular dystrophy and a number of other genetic diseases.”
A clinical trial will be needed to discern whether CRISPR-Gold is an effective treatment for genetic diseases in humans. Study co-authors Kunwoo Lee and Hyo Min Park have formed a start-up company, GenEdit (Murthy has an ownership stake in GenEdit), which is focused on translating the CRISPR-Gold technology into humans. The labs of Murthy and Conboy are also working on the next generation of particles that can deliver CRISPR into tissues from the blood stream and would preferentially target adult stem cells, which are considered the best targets for gene correction because stem and progenitor cells are capable of gene editing, self-renewal and differentiation.
“Genetic diseases cause devastating levels of mortality and morbidity, and new strategies for treating them are greatly needed,” Murthy said. “CRISPR-Gold was able to correct disease-causing gene mutations in vivo, via the non-viral delivery of Cas9 protein, guide RNA and donor DNA, and therefore has the potential to develop into a therapeutic for treating genetic diseases.”
The study was funded by the National Institutes of Health, the W.M. Keck Foundation, the Moore Foundation, the Li Ka Shing Foundation, Calico, Packer, Roger’s and SENS, and the Center of Innovation (COI) Program of the Japan Science and Technology Agency.
Here’s a link to and a citation for the paper,
Nanoparticle delivery of Cas9 ribonucleoprotein and donor DNA in vivo induces homology-directed DNA repair by Kunwoo Lee, Michael Conboy, Hyo Min Park, Fuguo Jiang, Hyun Jin Kim, Mark A. Dewitt, Vanessa A. Mackley, Kevin Chang, Anirudh Rao, Colin Skinner, Tamanna Shobha, Melod Mehdipour, Hui Liu, Wen-chin Huang, Freeman Lan, Nicolas L. Bray, Song Li, Jacob E. Corn, Kazunori Kataoka, Jennifer A. Doudna, Irina Conboy, & Niren Murthy. Nature Biomedical Engineering (2017) doi:10.1038/s41551-017-0137-2 Published online: 02 October 2017
Slate.com is dedicating a month (January 2017) to Frankenstein. This means there were will be one or more essays each week on one aspect or another of Frankenstein and science. These essays are one of a series of initiatives jointly supported by Slate, Arizona State University, and an organization known as New America. It gets confusing since these essays are listed as part of two initiatives: Futurography and Future Tense.
The really odd part, as far as I’m concerned, is that there is no mention of Arizona State University’s (ASU) The Frankenstein Bicentennial Project (mentioned in my Oct. 26, 2016 posting). Perhaps they’re concerned that people will think ASU is advertising the project?
Getting back to the essays, a Jan. 3, 2017 article by Jacob Brogan explains, by means of a ‘Question and Answer’ format article, why the book and the monster maintain popular interest after two centuries (Note: We never do find out who or how many people are supplying the answers),
OK, fine. I get that this book is important, but why are we talking about it in a series about emerging technology?
Though people still tend to weaponize it as a simple anti-scientific screed, Frankenstein, which was first published in 1818, is much richer when we read it as a complex dialogue about our relationship to innovation—both our desire for it and our fear of the changes it brings. Mary Shelley was just a teenager when she began to compose Frankenstein, but she was already grappling with our complex relationship to new forces. Almost two centuries on, the book is just as propulsive and compelling as it was when it was first published. That’s partly because it’s so thick with ambiguity—and so resistant to easy interpretation.
Is it really ambiguous? I mean, when someone calls something frankenfood, they aren’t calling it “ethically ambiguous food.”
It’s a fair point. For decades, Frankenstein has been central to discussions in and about bioethics. Perhaps most notably, it frequently crops up as a reference point in discussions of genetically modified organisms, where the prefix Franken- functions as a sort of convenient shorthand for human attempts to meddle with the natural order. Today, the most prominent flashpoint for those anxieties is probably the clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats, or CRISPR, gene-editing technique [emphasis mine]. But it’s really oversimplifying to suggest Frankenstein is a cautionary tale about monkeying with life.
As we’ll see throughout this month on Futurography, it’s become a lens for looking at the unintended consequences of things like synthetic biology, animal experimentation, artificial intelligence, and maybe even social networking. Facebook, for example, has arguably taken on a life of its own, as its algorithms seem to influence the course of elections. Mark Zuckerberg, who’s sometimes been known to disavow the power of his own platform, might well be understood as a Frankensteinian figure, amplifying his creation’s monstrosity by neglecting its practical needs.
But this book is almost 200 years old! Surely the actual science in it is bad.
Shelley herself would probably be the first to admit that the science in the novel isn’t all that accurate. Early in the novel, Victor Frankenstein meets with a professor who castigates him for having read the wrong works of “natural philosophy.” Shelley’s protagonist has mostly been studying alchemical tomes and otherwise fantastical works, the sort of things that were recognized as pseudoscience, even by the standards of the day. Near the start of the novel, Frankenstein attends a lecture in which the professor declaims on the promise of modern science. He observes that where the old masters “promised impossibilities and performed nothing,” the new scientists achieve far more in part because they “promise very little; they know that metals cannot be transmuted and that the elixir of life is a chimera.”
Is it actually about bad science, though?
Not exactly, but it has been read as a story about bad scientists.
Ultimately, Frankenstein outstrips his own teachers, of course, and pulls off the very feats they derided as mere fantasy. But Shelley never seems to confuse fact and fiction, and, in fact, she largely elides any explanation of how Frankenstein pulls off the miraculous feat of animating dead tissue. We never actually get a scene of the doctor awakening his creature. The novel spends far more dwelling on the broader reverberations of that act, showing how his attempt to create one life destroys countless others. Read in this light, Frankenstein isn’t telling us that we shouldn’t try to accomplish new things, just that we should take care when we do.
This speaks to why the novel has stuck around for so long. It’s not about particular scientific accomplishments but the vagaries of scientific progress in general.
Does that make it into a warning against playing God?
It’s probably a mistake to suggest that the novel is just a critique of those who would usurp the divine mantle. Instead, you can read it as a warning about the ways that technologists fall short of their ambitions, even in their greatest moments of triumph.
Look at what happens in the novel: After bringing his creature to life, Frankenstein effectively abandons it. Later, when it entreats him to grant it the rights it thinks it deserves, he refuses. Only then—after he reneges on his responsibilities—does his creation really go bad. We all know that Frankenstein is the doctor and his creation is the monster, but to some extent it’s the doctor himself who’s made monstrous by his inability to take responsibility for what he’s wrought.
I encourage you to read Brogan’s piece in its entirety and perhaps supplement the reading. Mary Shelley has a pretty interesting history. She ran off with Percy Bysshe Shelley who was married to another woman, in 1814 at the age of seventeen years. Her parents were both well known and respected intellectuals and philosophers, William Godwin and Mary Wollstonecraft. By the time Mary Shelley wrote her book, her first baby had died and she had given birth to a second child, a boy. Percy Shelley was to die a few years later as was her son and a third child she’d given birth to. (Her fourth child born in 1819 did survive.) I mention the births because one analysis I read suggests the novel is also a commentary on childbirth. In fact, the Frankenstein narrative has been examined from many perspectives (other than science) including feminism and LGBTQ studies.
Getting back to the science fiction end of things, the next part of the Futurography series is titled “A Cheat-Sheet Guide to Frankenstein” and that too is written by Jacob Brogan with a publication date of Jan. 3, 2017,
Marilyn Butler: Butler, a literary critic and English professor at the University of Cambridge, authored the seminal essay “Frankenstein and Radical Science.”
Jennifer Doudna: A professor of chemistry and biology at the University of California, Berkeley, Doudna helped develop the CRISPR gene-editing technique [emphasis mine].
Stephen Jay Gould: Gould is an evolutionary biologist and has written in defense of Frankenstein’s scientific ambitions, arguing that hubris wasn’t the doctor’s true fault.
Seán Ó hÉigeartaigh: As executive director of the Center for Existential Risk at the University of Cambridge, hÉigeartaigh leads research into technologies that threaten the existience of our species.
Jim Hightower: This columnist and activist helped popularize the term frankenfood to describe genetically modified crops.
Mary Shelley: Shelley, the author of Frankenstein, helped create science fiction as we now know it.
J. Craig Venter: A leading genomic researcher, Venter has pursued a variety of human biotechnology projects.
‘Franken’ and CRISPR
The first essay is in a Jan. 6, 2016 article by Kay Waldman focusing on the ‘franken’ prefix (Note: links have been removed),
In a letter to the New York Times on June 2, 1992, an English professor named Paul Lewis lopped off the top of Victor Frankenstein’s surname and sewed it onto a tomato. Railing against genetically modified crops, Lewis put a new generation of natural philosophers on notice: “If they want to sell us Frankenfood, perhaps it’s time to gather the villagers, light some torches and head to the castle,” he wrote.
William Safire, in a 2000 New York Times column, tracked the creation of the franken- prefix to this moment: an academic channeling popular distrust of science by invoking the man who tried to improve upon creation and ended up disfiguring it. “There’s no telling where or how it will end,” he wrote wryly, referring to the spread of the construction. “It has enhanced the sales of the metaphysical novel that Ms. Shelley’s husband, the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, encouraged her to write, and has not harmed sales at ‘Frank’n’Stein,’ the fast-food chain whose hot dogs and beer I find delectably inorganic.” Safire went on to quote the American Dialect Society’s Laurence Horn, who lamented that despite the ’90s flowering of frankenfruits and frankenpigs, people hadn’t used Frankensense to describe “the opposite of common sense,” as in “politicians’ motivations for a creatively stupid piece of legislation.”
A year later, however, Safire returned to franken- in dead earnest. In an op-ed for the Times avowing the ethical value of embryonic stem cell research, the columnist suggested that a White House conference on bioethics would salve the fears of Americans concerned about “the real dangers of the slippery slope to Frankenscience.”
All of this is to say that franken-, the prefix we use to talk about human efforts to interfere with nature, flips between “funny” and “scary” with ease. Like Shelley’s monster himself, an ungainly patchwork of salvaged parts, it can seem goofy until it doesn’t—until it taps into an abiding anxiety that technology raises in us, a fear of overstepping.
Waldman’s piece hints at how language can shape discussions while retaining a rather playful quality.
Since its publication nearly 200 years ago, Shelley’s gothic novel has been read as a cautionary tale of the dangers of creation and experimentation. James Whale’s 1931 film took the message further, assigning explicitly the hubris of playing God to the mad scientist. As his monster comes to life, Dr. Frankenstein, played by Colin Clive, triumphantly exclaims: “Now I know what it feels like to be God!”
The admonition against playing God has since been ceaselessly invoked as a rhetorical bogeyman. Secular and religious, critic and journalist alike have summoned the term to deride and outright dismiss entire areas of research and technology, including stem cells, genetically modified crops, recombinant DNA, geoengineering, and gene editing. As we near the two-century commemoration of Shelley’s captivating story, we would be wise to shed this shorthand lesson—and to put this part of the Frankenstein legacy to rest in its proverbial grave.
The trouble with the term arises first from its murkiness. What exactly does it mean to play God, and why should we find it objectionable on its face? All but zealots would likely agree that it’s fine to create new forms of life through selective breeding and grafting of fruit trees, or to use in-vitro fertilization to conceive life outside the womb to aid infertile couples. No one objects when people intervene in what some deem “acts of God,” such as earthquakes, to rescue victims and provide relief. People get fully behind treating patients dying of cancer with “unnatural” solutions like chemotherapy. Most people even find it morally justified for humans to mete out decisions as to who lives or dies in the form of organ transplant lists that prize certain people’s survival over others.
So what is it—if not the imitation of a deity or the creation of life—that inspires people to invoke the idea of “playing God” to warn against, or even stop, particular technologies? A presidential commission charged in the early 1980s with studying the ethics of genetic engineering of humans, in the wake of the recombinant DNA revolution, sheds some light on underlying motivations. The commission sought to understand the concerns expressed by leaders of three major religious groups in the United States—representing Protestants, Jews, and Catholics—who had used the phrase “playing God” in a 1980 letter to President Jimmy Carter urging government oversight. Scholars from the three faiths, the commission concluded, did not see a theological reason to flat-out prohibit genetic engineering. Their concerns, it turned out, weren’t exactly moral objections to scientists acting as God. Instead, they echoed those of the secular public; namely, they feared possible negative effects from creating new human traits or new species. In other words, the religious leaders who called recombinant DNA tools “playing God” wanted precautions taken against bad consequences but did not inherently oppose the use of the technology as an act of human hubris.
She presents an interesting argument and offers this as a solution,
The lesson for contemporary science, then, is not that we should cease creating and discovering at the boundaries of current human knowledge. It’s that scientists and technologists ought to steward their inventions into society, and to more rigorously participate in public debate about their work’s social and ethical consequences. Frankenstein’s proper legacy today would be to encourage researchers to address the unsavory implications of their technologies, whether it’s the cognitive and social effects of ubiquitous smartphone use or the long-term consequences of genetically engineered organisms on ecosystems and biodiversity.
Some will undoubtedly argue that this places an undue burden on innovators. Here, again, Shelley’s novel offers a lesson. Scientists who cloister themselves as Dr. Frankenstein did—those who do not fully contemplate the consequences of their work—risk later encounters with the horror of their own inventions.
At a guess, Venkataraman seems to be assuming that if scientists communicate and make their case that the public will cease to panic with reference moralistic and other concerns. My understanding is that social scientists have found this is not the case. Someone may understand the technology quite well and still oppose it.
Frankenstein and anti-vaxxers
The Jan. 16, 2017 essay by Charles Kenny is the weakest of the lot, so far (Note: Links have been removed),
In 1780, University of Bologna physician Luigi Galvani found something peculiar: When he applied an electric current to the legs of a dead frog, they twitched. Thirty-seven years later, Mary Shelley had Galvani’s experiments in mind as she wrote her fable of Faustian overreach, wherein Dr. Victor Frankenstein plays God by reanimating flesh.
And a little less than halfway between those two dates, English physician Edward Jenner demonstrated the efficacy of a vaccine against smallpox—one of the greatest killers of the age. Given the suspicion with which Romantic thinkers like Shelley regarded scientific progress, it is no surprise that many at the time damned the procedure as against the natural order. But what is surprising is how that suspicion continues to endure, even after two centuries of spectacular successes for vaccination. This anti-vaccination stance—which now infects even the White House—demonstrates the immense harm that can be done by excessive distrust of technological advance.
Kenny employs history as a framing device. Crudely, Galvani’s experiments led to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein which is a fable about ‘playing God’. (Kenny seems unaware there are many other readings of and perspectives on the book.) As for his statement ” … the suspicion with which Romantic thinkers like Shelley regarded scientific progress … ,” I’m not sure how he arrived at his conclusion about Romantic thinkers. According to Richard Holmes (in his book, The Age of Wonder: How the Romantic Generation Discovered the Beauty and Terror of Science), their relationship to science was more complex. Percy Bysshe Shelley ran ballooning experiments and wrote poetry about science, which included footnotes for the literature and concepts he was referencing; John Keats was a medical student prior to his establishment as a poet; and Samuel Taylor Coleridge (The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, etc.) maintained a healthy correspondence with scientists of the day sometimes influencing their research. In fact, when you analyze the matter, you realize even scientists are, on occasion, suspicious of science.
As for the anti-vaccination wars, I wish this essay had been more thoughtful. Yes, Andrew Wakefield’s research showing a link between MMR (measles, mumps, and rubella) vaccinations and autism is a sham. However, having concerns and suspicions about technology does not render you a fool who hasn’t progressed from 18th/19th Century concerns and suspicions about science and technology. For example, vaccines are being touted for all kinds of things, the latest being a possible antidote to opiate addiction (see Susan Gados’ June 28, 2016 article for ScienceNews). Are we going to be vaccinated for everything? What happens when you keep piling vaccination on top of vaccination? Instead of a debate, the discussion has devolved to: “I’m right and you’re wrong.”
For the record, I’m grateful for the vaccinations I’ve had and the diminishment of diseases that were devastating and seem to be making a comeback with this current anti-vaccination fever. That said, I think there are some important questions about vaccines.
Kenny’s essay could have been a nuanced discussion of vaccines that have clearly raised the bar for public health and some of the concerns regarding the current pursuit of yet more vaccines. Instead, he’s been quite dismissive of anyone who questions vaccination orthodoxy.
The end of this piece
There will be more essays in Slate’s Frankenstein series but I don’t have time to digest and write commentary for all of them.
Please use this piece as a critical counterpoint to some of the series and, if I’ve done my job, you’ll critique this critique. Please do let me know if you find any errors or want to add an opinion or add your own critique in the Comments of this blog.
ETA Jan. 25, 2017: Here’s the Frankenstein webspace on Slate’s Futurography which lists all the essays in this series. It’s well worth looking at the list. There are several that were not covered here.