Echaves: Obsession

ALMOST 40 years ago, the world woke up with mixed feelings to news about Louise Joy Brown in the U.K, the first “test-tube baby” or the first human born after conception by in-vitro fertilization (IVF).

I wondered how difficult it must have been for the Browns to focus on the pluses despite the people’s frenzy over the birth circumstances of Louise, ranging from the sublime to the ridiculous.

The Catholic Church worried about consequences. The medical world subjected Louise to more than 60 tests upon birth, to determine if she was normal.

People in the school often wondered how, despite her weight, Louise could have fit into a test tube.

The rumor mills went on overdrive; reportedly, Louise could read with her mind, or teleport. And because the mails brought in weird stuff as well, the hospital corridors were lined with policemen.

What was controversial then no longer raises eyebrows now. Offshoots of the original shock at first, too, but eventually toe poet Alexander Pope’s lines, “Be not the first by whom the new is tried, nor be the last to lay the old aside.”

Comes now the newest eyebrow raiser, the CRISPR, acronym for Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats.

Don’t turn purple with the big words. Already labeled as “this decade’s biggest biotech invention,” CRISPR is a gene- editing tool invented by biochemist Jennifer Doudna and Emmanuelle Charpentier.

Through CRISPR, scientists can program cells using the Cas9 enzyme. After determining which part of one’s DNA sequence is defective, scientists can feed Cas9 the right sequence called a guide RNA, snip the defective out, and paste, insert or reorder bits of genetic code with remarkable precision and remarkable results.

Expectedly, the initial tests were on mosquitoes and mice. CRISPR has created malaria-blocking mosquitoes, and mice need not be black-skinned anymore. Some clinical trials in China now use CRISPR to edit cancer patients’ immune cells so that they can fight lung cancer.

With the spreading popularity of and excitement over the various possibilities with CRISPR, old fears have resurfaced. After successes with mosquitoes and mice, can studies involving human embryos be far behind?

The fear is quite legitimate. Already the US National Academy of Sciences and the National Academy of Medicine have approved the use of CRISPR for modifying human embryos with certain heritable diseases.

The qualifier “with certain heritable diseases” bears repeating. First, this, then what next?

Many moons ago, obstetricians advised newly-married thirty-something brides not to wait too long to have their first baby. The rule of thumb was to avoid pregnancy beyond age 35.

Yet, we’ve heard of women, especially celebrities, having pregnancies in their late 40s or even beyond 50.

Then we heard of sperm banks for single women wanting children. And pregnancy by surrogacy. And still more, third-party pregnancies.

Each time man discovers a new tool, his obsession to play God resurrects.
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