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In the Pursuit of Science: GATTACA and Now

Updated: Jun 14, 2023

By Jason Hwang


In the GATTACA, a movie directed by Andrew Nichols and released in 1997, it describes a world in which jobs and social status are determined by one's genes. In this world, parents artificially alter the genes of their fetus to ensure that their children would grow up to have the best qualities of both parents. In an indirect way to incentivize the altering of DNA, businesses and governments utilize genomic profiling to select the best individual for their jobs–causing individuals with altered genes to have an unfair advantage. The main protagonist, Vincent Freeman, was naturally conceived but his genes reveal that he is susceptible to heart defects and has an expected lifespan of ~30 years. As a result, he is supposed to be unable to work for the government’s space program; however, he is able to do so by taking the identity of his artificially conceived brother. And although Vincent ends up going to space, fulfilling his lifelong dream, one can only help but wonder: can this be us?


On November 26, 2018, a Chinese scientist named He Jiankui edited the genomes of two female embryos to make them resistant to HIV. He was later sentenced to three years in prison and a $430,000 USD fine.


Dr. Juankui used CRISPR to create a 32-base-pair deletion in the CCR5 gene, which is found on chromosome 3. This deletion would cause the gene to produce non-working copies of the CCR5 protein. And although we don’t understand much about the role of CCR5 proteins, most HIV variants require a functional CCR5 protein to invade and infect the cells. As such, it was theorized that individuals without any CCR5 proteins would be unable to have T-cells infected by HIV; thus, preventing AIDS.


However, the scientific community doesn’t understand the side effects of living without CCR5 proteins. In nature, the only groups of humans that were observed to live without CCR5 proteins were found in Northern Europe. However, these individuals live in different climates, different cuisine, different microbiomes, and different lifestyles than individuals in China. As such, scientists aren’t able to determine how the genetically-altered girls would fair in the future. Would they experience higher mortality rates? Higher birth defects for future offsprings? Lowered immune activity? There is no prior evidence to date on.


Since CRISPR alters the genes of the patient with the use of proteins to “cut” the DNA, there is always the possibility of error. It may over or undercut a certain gene, or even miss the entire gene, causing the gene expression to radically differ from the expected response. Since the entire human genome isn’t fully understood, any changes within the gene may cause other genes to be affected or the deletion of certain parts of the gene may even cause the gene to be deactivated or have a different purpose. We just don’t fully understand the human genome yet.


We don’t know what will happen to these girls who were genetically altered; however, since their genetic editing occurred in the cells of the early embryo, their somatic and germline cells were altered. As such, their altered genes would pass on to their offspring and create unforeseen tragedies.


Dr. Juankui’s experiments lay the possibility that there will be a future in which future embryos can be genetically altered to remove potentially harmful genetic mutations. We may see a future where down syndrome and Cystic Fibrosis may be eradicated from the population. However, we can also see a future in which access to these life-changing technologies would be limited to the rich–inflaming the relationship between the rich and poor. We can also see a future, such as GATTACA, where future prospects are limited due to genetic profiling.


As Dr. Juankui’s experiment opened a pandora’s box into the world of genetic editing, the question remains: “to what extent should we pursue science?” Afterall, the atomic bomb was created, in part, to investigate the limits of the atom.


References:

Gattaca. GATTACA | Sony Pictures Entertainment. (n.d.). https://www.sonypictures.com/movies/gattaca


Normile, D. (2019, December 30). Chinese scientist who produced genetically altered babies sentenced to 3 years in jail. Science.


3 Greely H. T. (2019). CRISPR'd babies: human germline genome editing in the 'He Jiankui affair'. Journal of law and the biosciences, 6(1), 111-183. https://doi.org/10.1093/jlb/Isz010


Spotlight: Why join the manhattan project?. Nuclear Museum. (n.d.).



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