It’s About Time

This last week’s CBS TV program “60 Minutes” (Mar 29, 2015) gave half the show’s air time to a single story. It was about the progress seen in a new Cancer Fighting technology being researched at Duke University Medical Centre.

This new tech involves using a genetically modified Polio virus to target and kill Cancer cells. That’s right boys and girls, what some might call a ‘Franken-Virus” … and not just any old virus, nope – they needed to use the scourge that begat the Iron Lung and the March Of Dimes; Polio.

Now we watched this after a long drive where I’d ‘expounded’ on the losing battle we have with Bacteria. This was prompted by listening to the Chief Medical Officer of England, Prof. Dame Sally Davies, talking with Moira Gunn on NPR’s Bio-TechNation. Prof. Davies was explaining the ways that bacteria are superior to us in this battle. (actually they were discussing the topic of her book “Drugs Don’t Work Penguin Special: A Global Threat“)

Essentially the standard approach to anti-biotics that we have spent decades of research and development on is stalled and pretty much has been since 1987. And what our biocidal efforts have done is create bugs that can beat the best weapons we have to fight them with. Primarily because there are more bacteria (by numbers) than us, they replicate in 20 minutes so there’s lots of possibilities for genetic mutation, and they do something we do not: they exchange genetic information!

This last item is rather important. It’s called lateral gene transfer. As opposed to the normal way of parent to child or original to clone. And it means that ‘useful’ genes, like those which save a bug from a biocidal agent, can be shared. Are shared. So once one bug finds the key it’s just a matter of time before all its siblings and their clones have it too.

We do not do Lateral Gene Transfer.

(And our turnover rate is far, far slower.)

We could do it and research has been done along various avenues that could benefit something approaching it.

I’m talking about genetic surgery, aka gene therapy, on the genes of a living person. What some alarmingly might call might call Franken-People or Franken-Babies.

If our way of dealing with this struggle with the bacteria in the world will ultimately lead to our demise then we should be looking for a different solution, should we not?

Let’s say for purposes of argument that because not all jurisdictions ban all research avenues some forward progress is made along the lines of lateral gene transfer somewhere in the world. Couple that with high speed analysis and comparison techniques so we can detect when some human has a genetic variation that confers upon them an ability to defend against or become invisible to certain bugs that are causing harm and death. In short form: Let’s say we can quickly figure out if it’s a genetic solution, which gene(s) it is and copy that genetic information into anyone else thereby giving them the same protection.

Of course nothing is ever quite that simple but it could be close to it so …

Now imagine that disease X rears its ugly head and people begin to get sick … and some die. And it starts to spread across borders and pretty soon it’s clear that there is no stopping the spread. Conventional weapons are ineffective and only advanced round the clock care helps hedge the odds in your favour. The kind of care that only the wealthy can afford in most places without socialized health care systems. And things get progressively worse as the death toll rises and the survivors strain the system.

Then someone identifies a gene type that might be resistant and when they check they find that yes indeed that sub group of humanity does not suffer from the disease like everyone else does. And the researchers are able to identify the genes involved and come up with a ‘cure’. One that only works using gene therapy. It gets tested and is found to work safely. In the spirit of humanity the ‘cure’ is made public and openly gifted to the world. Slowly one country and then another give it a try and are successful. Then more. Then the question comes up in your country. What would happen?

If the population in your country had forced the government to put a moratorium on genetic modification in humans because they were worried for moral, ethical and safety reasons then you have a political problem: You cannot allow this ‘cure’ to be used unless you change the laws. If you drag your heels on that then every person who dies might be down to you. If you stick to principles and continue to oppose it then sooner or later that position will be untenable. If only because people will soon realize that in order to argue about these things you have to be alive and sticking to these principles might kill you. Kill them and their children. So if the government of the day doesn’t get swayed to change the law they will face a very angry public. And over time there will be more and more dead and sick and voters who are sick and tired of adherence to unrealistic thinking patterns that do not solve the problem.

What a dilemma for those who fear the Franken-Babies and genetic alteration.

Now we might have a ‘cure’ for glial blastoma (cancer of the brain). And possibly other cancer types as well.

But it uses genetically altered viruses …

In this 21st Century world that I find myself living in that could be a problem.

Genetic Modification of life forms and living things has become quite controversial. Preventable diseases are once again on the rise but not because we lack the weapons to fight them, nope. It’s because we lack the confidence in Vaccines needed to get enough people vaccinated to have herd wide protection. When I say ‘we’ I mean a significant and vocal part of the population. They fear the medicines. They don’t trust the medical system. They sure do not trust big Pharmaceutical companies. Genetic modification of humans would be anathema – genetic modification of them or their children might result in criminal non-compliance and worse.

So what will happen?

In our hypothetical outbreak situation I predict social and political unrest.

Long term in the ‘real world’ I see eventual adoption of the technology if only because times change and people and culture change with it.

Things which were once acceptable become unacceptable. And things that were once considered criminal and disgusting become normal and legitimate.

Science and Technology are guaranteed to bring surprises. Sometimes it just takes a generation that has grown up with something to get to voting age … we just have to see that they make it that far. It’s about time …

Addendum:

The latest news is of Gene Therapy being worked on in China. Many are worried about this … but let’s take a look in our magical hypothetical Crystal Ball for a bit.

Let’s say that gene therapy successfully prevents inheritable conditions that debilitate or otherwise hamper the life of a person. So let’s say China stops having babies that have a whole host of diseases and the knock on effect is that they also do not have the costs associated with the health care required by these patients because they have less and less and eventually none at all.

But other countries do not go so far … and their health care systems continue to cost more and more because babies with congenital health issues continue to be born.

How long will it take for simple economic pressure in those countries to force a change? Ignoring the personal or societal moral issues and discussions just think about the health care costs and the organizations tasked with paying for that. In many countries it is the people themselves and other countries it is health care systems.

Again … it’s just a matter of time before society changes.

It’s All About Time.

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