Scientific Progress or A Step Too Far?

We’ve been concentrating on the question of Adam lately, and it is time for something of a break. This is an amazing time to be a scientist – there is so much going on and so much progress being made in so many areas of study. One fascinating source for brief general public level insights into these new developments is the ScienceNow section of Science Magazine Online. This section reports on advances from a number of areas and is not limited to reports published in Science.

An interesting report in ScienceNow last week, Pushing Light Beyond Light Speed, described a method to make it appear that a light pulse travels faster than the speed of light, arriving as much as 200 nanoseconds earlier than it “should”. This is an apparent violation of special relativity, not a real one. Relativity holds. But the study is still fascinating. We can manipulate and shape light to improve on the purely “natural” properties of incoherent light and perhaps improve optical communication technologies. Cool stuff. I don’t work in the area of the this report, but we do use optical pulse shaping to manipulate the interaction between light and molecules, light and matter. The picture is of a laser in my lab.

Manipulation of light and the interaction between light and matter doesn’t raise many ethical questions. This isn’t true in biology though. The breadth of advance in biological sciences is truly phenomenal and the rate of progress can leave us in the dust. This is true in the study of evolution, genomics, environment, and paleontology. But it goes beyond study to include manipulation, producing or modifying living cells and living creatures. In this case the pace of research and the range of possibility can raise ethical questions. Questions we need a scientifically literate population to digest and deal with.

Here is an example of a worm made to glow, ScienceShot: Worms Enter the Synthetic Age. These researchers produced a worm including proteins with an unnatural extra amino acid linked to a fluorescent molecule. The cells containing this protein glow red under light.  The worm lives, and can be studied in ways never before possible.

The above example is relatively innocuous – but the following report discusses an example that has more potential use and more potential concern: Suicide-Bombing Bacteria Could Fight Infections. A bacteria, E. coli, was modified to include synthetic genetic code that allowed P. aeruginosa to identify itself and also gave E. coli a gene for making  a compound toxic to P. aeruginosa, and a suicide gene to self-destruct under the right circumstance. The modified E. coli would then be attracted to the infecting bacteria, produce a toxin, and self-destruct and destroy the infecting bacteria. This is an early trial with many difficulties remaining to be solved, but illustrates the potential power.

What do you think of research like this?

Does this raise images of Frankenstein’s monster or B science fiction thrillers and mad scientists? Or is it exciting progress?

Are we venturing into a realm where we should not go – manipulating God’s creation?

One last story involving genetic manipulation: ‘Serial Killer’ Immune Cells Put Cancer in Remission. Genetic manipulation of human T Cells, on the front line of our immune systems, created designer cells capable of hunting down and destroying the cancerous B Cells causing chronic lymphocytic leukemia. In a human trial with three patients where other traditional treatments were no longer effective the leukemia was wiped out and all three are now in remission. This is early and much remains to be studied, but the results exceeded expectations and the potential is huge. The potential impact extends beyond this one disease to include other designer T Cells to attack other cancers and other diseases.

The new therapy isn’t just a potential boon for CLL patients, says oncologist Walter Urba of Providence Cancer Center in Portland, Oregon. The success of the clinical trial could translate to other cancer types. “You can now try to switch this receptor to recognize a different target,” says Urba, who specializes in cancer immunotherapy. “Let’s make a breast cancer-specific receptor, and a prostate cancer-specific receptor, and a colon cancer-specific receptor. The potential here is huge to apply this to different tumor types.”

And Urba cautions that the current results are based on a small sample size. More work is needed to verify that the treatment is broadly successful in all CLL patients and that stray cancer cells don’t eventually mutate so that they avoid displaying the molecule targeted by the T cells.

“This is really exciting,” he says. “The results are very promising. But it’s also important to remember that this is just a couple of patients and they’ve only been followed for a short time. We need to see more studies now.”

Wow – we are entering a new age of potential, and it may rival the advent of antibiotics as far as human health goes. Anyone who knows someone with cancer or who has died of cancer should be excited at the possibilities.

Does this kind of application change your view of the ethics of genetic manipulation?

When is it a step too far? Why?

If you wish to contact me directly you may do so at rjs4mail[at]

If you have comments please visit Scientific Progress or A Step Too Far? at Jesus Creed.

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