English 165LB: Literature & Biotechnology (W11)

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Splice to meet you (with discussion questions)

Posted by rraley on March 1, 2011

// from Hayley and Kellyn

In 2005 researchers inserted “human embryonic stem cells into the brains of fetal mice inside the womb,” thus creating mice 1% of their brains functioning human brain cells. Many are wondered if this crossed the line, while others, such as Stanford’s Institute of Cancer/Stem Cell Biology and Medicine director, Irv Weissman, sees it this way:

Anybody who puts their own moral guidance in the way of this biomedical science, where they want to impose their will—not just be part of an argument—if that leads to a ban or moratorium. … they are stopping research that would save human lives.

The goal of creating these Frankenmice was to “[provide] a living laboratory where scientists [could] study human brain diseases and drug companies [could] test the safety of experimental medicines.” In creating these new genetically engineered test subjects, speculative fiction warns us against forgetting what Kac describes as the cognitive and emotional life of these animals. Gradually reducing an living being to the cognitive state of Atwood’s ChickieNobs is crossing a hard to define line between progress and ethics.

This view is shared by the opposition to Frankenmice which insists that creating these mice “would deny that there is something distinctive and valuable about human beings that ought to be honored and protected.”

(1)http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2005/01/0125_050125_chimeras.html

(2) http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2005/12/12/AR2005121201388.html

Another genetically modified group of animals reminiscent of the “pigoons” from Oryx and Crake are used produce drugs. Goats and chickens are the factories used to produce these drugs. “Just after fertilization, ‘pharmers’ insert into the embryo a human gene that codes for a particular protein — usually one that’s produced naturally in humans, but that’s lacking in people who have certain diseases. They attach that DNA code with a gene that codes for a sugar found in mammalian milk, insuring that the therapeutic protein will be expressed only in the animals’ milk or eggs.” These proteins are then isolated and used in the creation of the drugs. The benefit of this method is that a in one year a single goat can produce the  equivalent amount of protein for one drug, for example, Anthrombin,  as havested from 50,000 humans. But what are the costs??

http://www.wired.com/medtech/health/news/2007/02/72708

The mice, whether actualized or not (it seems that the fully humanized mouse brains never came into existence), and “phaarmed” animals raise a new set of questions.

– What is this “distinctive and valuable” aspect of humanity that goes beyond the scientific definition of a species?

– When have we created a new species that does not have enough human genes or characteristics to classify it as human?

– Is it our bodies, our brains, our genes, a mixture of the 3, or something else that makes us human?

– What species then do we call these human/mice chimeras and what keeps us from viewing this species as natural since they are created by natural beings(us)?

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One Response to “Splice to meet you (with discussion questions)”

  1. Jay Healy said

    http://learn.genetics.utah.edu/content/begin/traits/telomeres/
    As a cell begins to become cancerous, it divides more often, and its telomeres become very short. If its telomeres get too short, the cell may die. It can escape this fate by becoming a cancer cell and activating an enzyme called telomerase, which prevents the telomeres from getting even shorter.
    http://www.viewzone.com/nakedrats.html
    Since cancer is basically runaway cell replication, we realized that whatever was doing this was probably the same thing that prevented cancer from ever getting started in the mole rats

    I was looking around on the internet after a friend at school in New York sent me a short-story he wrote about living through immortality. This friend of mine is the science guy, not me, so I had to look into some of the facts behind scientific progress regarding the human fantasy of “immortality.”
    The information on the above websites talks about some of the experimentation regarding cell longevity in test rodents. In recent years, the discovery that telomerase, an enzyme interacting with the natural cell division of telomeres, the ends of cells, “prevents the telomeres from getting even shorter.” Research in mole rats in the second article provides an explanation of the specific gene sequences that help the mole rats control cell longevity.
    Oryx & Crake discusses the fantasy that attributes of one species can be genetically transferred to become an adaptation of another species. The experimentation that takes place in Atwood’s novel splices only characteristics of nonhuman animals together, because human experimentation is cruel and unusual to autonomous life… and beastly animals could never have an autonomous thought.
    So, in this short story, the obvious moral conundrum is that if accurate gene-splicing techniques came about, the experimentation of “immortality” would consume a lot of resources and attention regarding the direct offense to the process of natural selection, genetic variation and the subsequent adaptations. But the progressive argument is that the science behind telomerase could be applied to surrounding normal cells to effectively combat cancer cells, that automatically activate the telomerase enzyme—
    Quick though: what if biotechnology developed, before efficient gene splicing in humans, a technique in which synthetic cancer cells were injected around not just cancerous areas, but sparsely around the entire body in order to cause total cell longevity in a single body. I guess it’s a joke to even conceive the development of a synthetic cancer cell that binds to other cells and passes on its telomerase-producing abilities, minus the disastrous effects of an aggressive, malignant tumor… a bunch of synthetically-created (oh, still spliced I guess) cells modeled after cancer.
    Anyways, the realities of applying these telomerase codes to the human genome is far enough off that we don’t have to worry just yet, but the fact that this appears as one of science’s most promising leads on the fight against cancer, you can be sure that genetic corporations are working their butts off doing associated research.
    So, let’s apply this (currently…) farfetched concept of achieving immortality or substantial longevity of life. Regardless of the debate over the ethical boundary of scientific experimentation, the manipulation and implantation of foreign genes into the human genome in order to live forever is firmly planted on the unethical side of the boundary. Because genetic immortality is not viable (and hopefully never will be), the only answers provided with the discovery of telomerase’s properties is that concepts like human immortality offend so much of whatever it means to be nature, that surely there does exist an ethical boundary involved with genetic tampering.

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