I just read a novel by Michael Crichton titled, “Next”. Crichton is best known for his techno-thrillers such as “The Andromeda Strain”, “Jurassic Park”, and “Prey”. He is also a medical doctor so quite a few of his books have been based on some kind of medical or scientific research. “Next” is a science-fiction novel set in the near future where human genetic engineering is part of everyday life. The possible ramifications and misuse are addressed via the fictional plot. However, Crichton always bases his books on science. The book was well-researched and based on factual information. He cites his sources in the back and has an afterword outlining his predictions and opinions on the entire subject. I highly recommend it. After reading this book I wanted to know more and thought some basic facts I uncovered would be worth writing about. (Left, above: human DNA structure)
1. What is genetic engineering?
Simply stated, it is the controlled modification of some part of the genes or DNA of a person. In other words, it is now possible for scientists to change human capacities, physical, cognitive, or emotional.
2. What techniques are used?
There are two types genetic engineering, Somatic and Germline. Somatic involves adding genes to cells other than egg or sperm cells. The treatment of diseases caused by defective genes through gene replacement is an example of this technique. These changes are not be passed down to offspring.
Germline engineering consists of changing genes in eggs, sperm, or very early embryos. Such changes are inheritable. This technique could result in perpetual and irreversible changes in humans. For this reason, it is very controversial.
3. What benefits could come from human gene manipulation?
Possible cures for diseases such as Alzheimer’s, Diabetes, MS, and others. Great progress is already being made.
4. What is a “gene patent”?
Genes that have been manipulated into a new form can be patented in some countries. Companies and researchers are allowed to do this in the United States. Many other countries do not recognize these patents.
5. What are “stem cells”?
These are the basic cells of life that have not developed into a particular type of cell yet. For example cells being in the development of a human being from stem cells to heart cells, liver cells, skin cells, etc. The advantage of stem cells is that scientists can “tell” them to develop into whatever type of cell they need for therapy. New brain cells could be created and used to replace damaged ones, at least that is the theory.
6. What is cloning and is it possible to clone humans?
Cloning is reproduction of a species without cells from both sexes. Sheep, frogs, cats, dogs and other animals have been successfully cloned. Human beings are animals therefore it is entirely possible. No one is saying it would be easy, but possible – Yes.
7. What would be the main reason for cloning humans?
So organs could be harvested. Of course this would mean death for the clone.
8. Isn’t it illegal to clone humans?
Yes but not in all countries.
9. How soon could we see humans successfully cloned?
Likely within five years.
10. Do stem cells have to come from human embryos?
Not anymore. Scientists are now able to obtain stem cells from other organs within the body.