CRISPR Part 4
this little piggy saved a life
Writing this Newsletter became an important part of my life over the last six months. A means to slow my mind down and let inspiration take me for a ride. A loss of inspiration has paid a visit and it is time for a break. It will be great if I can find the way back. Thanks to all of you who took the time to read it. All the more thanks to those who consistently shared comments or even clicked like once in a while. They were fuel for me. We are all different and I respect those differences. I have always tried to comment on what I read because I know how much the comments meant to me. Right up until this last post I hoped my motivation would return. My draft folder is full of a number of great possibilities in various stages of complete. It will be a great day when and if I return. Till then, thanks to all of you for reading. This is post #135.
The operation of an adaptive immune system provided examples to scientists to make a new and remarkable tool. The ability to find something in our bodies and either remove it or make a small edit to it or make a wholesale replacement comprises all of the necessary steps to the editing of life. Only living things have DNA. Only the most potent and refined example of those living things, humankind has emerged able to understand it, coexist with it, and now grasp how to improve/edit it such that evolution and its slow course of mutation can be superseded.
It would be arrogant not to realize how simultaneously dangerous and transcendent such an unknown step in our history may lead. Technology is neutral and we have shown throughout our history that we WILL PURSUE the use and misuse of each step forward. I believe this is endemic in what I discussed in a long four-part story titled How to Tame Your Lizard near the beginning of my Newsletter journey. Once humans, supposedly the highest-order of beings, with an extra brain up front realized we could exploit each other, we were full speed ahead. These are my only four-part stories.
We are remarkable beings and we have emerged with a glorious opportunity at the top of our food chain. Our recent progress brings us to examine the largest worlds beyond our planet in the sky above. It also brings us to examine the inner workings of the smallest of things like genetics that explain so much of our world at the miniature level. We have even begun to transcend these wonderful brains of ours with a silicon-inspired improvement. All of this, largely in the last 500 years at the very outside limit when we thought the world ended at Saturn and human illness was often demonic possession.
If you believe the fossil record, our planet is 4.6 billion years old. If you believe in an inspired text you may shade your judgment closer to 6000 years. In either case, the progress we embark on in this generation is recent no matter how you slice it. I find it comforting that regardless of the duration, the story is the same. More progress in the next 25 years is forecast than in the last 20000 or so.
When I was researching how to write this series of stories, I started with the news reports of the breakthrough at the University of Maryland in which a genetically modified pig was raised, with modest modification, addition, or removal from the chromosomes of the pig. The animal was raised with the express goal of becoming a life-saving option for a human being! We have done this with plants of all sorts with increasing success. Earlier work that led to this breakthrough capitalized on the remarkable similarity between pig, baboon, and human hearts. Medical students focus their efforts on using pigs to learn about working with the human heart. Some of the more interesting work to date includes:
Canadian scientists turned on a genetic growth switch that exists in all fish and merely made a Pacific Chinook salmon express hunger twelve months a year as inspired by a lesser known species the ocean pout. The link has a photograph of what an 18 month farm-raised Atlantic Salmon looks like as a result.
Genetic modification has been happening for hundreds if not thousands of years. What is different today is we have the means to direct it at a given spot within an organism’s DNA. Kale is a great example. For hipsters, ALL of the kale you prefer is GMO and started out as a lowly wild cabbage that we just kept beating the drum for larger and larger leaves.
For those of you who eschew dairy, almonds ALWAYS contained cyanide and were not edible. It was GM cross-breeding over centuries that led to an almond without cyanide that now we press into vegan milk because of the incredible production achieved in the California Central Valley. All of this thanks to human ingenuity that diverted water from the Colorado River and made the desert bloom.
In the intervening period from when I heard the news story of a pig to human heart transplant on January 7th, 2022, the patient has unfortunately passed away. The first heart transplant patient in 1967 lived 18 days. It is the nature of science that these efforts will build upon themselves. David Bennett, patient number 1 at the University of Maryland lived two months before succumbing to complications. I am grateful that Mr. Bennett and his medical team moved the ball forward.
This is a promising new avenue for science and the pig heart transplant is merely a sensational thought-provoking example. What is the future?
Gene therapy is the frontier we are on. We can now culture the most intractable of tumors, edit the genetic material of the tumor itself and ACTIVATE the immune system to attack the tumor and kill it. So often, cancer suppresses or tricks the immune system into ignoring its signature and grows unabated. Work directly related to the heroes of this post, the biologists and chemists who isolated the attributes of CRISPR will unlock a new world for all of us.
Tonight’s song is dedicated to David Bennett, the man who became the patient for the first pig-to-human heart transplant. Here is my music and posting library, frozen in time, at least for a while.
Writer’s block arrived for me over a month ago and I had hoped I would work my way through it. It has become difficult to scale. It is time for a break. Thanks to all. Find something to read. Take a look at my archive if you wish. Find something great on Substack. There is a lot to choose from. For those of you with iPhones, there is now a Substack App for iOS. Android requires some more patience. In the meantime, I still recommend the Reader as I do this on a larger screen, not a phone. Here’s something instrumental if you would rather listen than read. It works for me sometimes. I think I’ve loved this song for almost fifty years. It is hard not to like it. It makes me feel like I’m on a journey perhaps like the one humankind has been on to understand the inner workings of life and how it blossoms. Life is precious, it is worth exploring and nurturing.