A lot has been written lately about a gene-editing technique called CRISPR-Cas9. At its simplest, CRISPR-Cas9 is an efficient way to make precise and targeted changes to the genome of a living cell. I first encountered the idea of genomic changes years ago when I was researching novel ways to treat brain tumors with modified retroviruses. Back then, gene therapy was all the rage. I immediately saw the potential for significant changes in the way medicine is approached and practiced.
When it came time to write my first novel, EVEN THE WIND, the idea of genomic tampering somehow stuck. I’m not really sure why since the book is a police procedural featuring a police lieutenant in Boston. I guess it may have been the location. Boston is a hub for biotech research. Why not use the murder at the center of EVEN THE WIND to provide commentary on gene tampering, biotechnology and the possibility such powerful technology could be perverted by the criminal element. As the book evolved, so too did the ideas and links to the real-world science.
The following is the spoiler-free blurb at the end of the book that I added to provide the reader with some context to the events and science that precipitated the theme. If you have any thoughts on the science or would just like to add your voice to the debate, drop me a line at email@example.com. I’d love to start a conversation going on these topics. If you’re interested in future stories involving Lieutenant Jonas Brant, please consider joining my author newsletter. You’ll find the signup at my website www.phwilson.net.
The age of molecular medicine is upon us. The Human Genome Project, the mapping of the complete human genome, was declared completed in April 2003. Even earlier, trials for gene therapy — the first attempt to fix a genetic-based disease at its source — got underway in 1990 when scientists attempted to replace a defective ADA gene in a four-year-old girl named Ashanti DeSilva. The outcome of that trial is under debate. For an in-depth examination of gene therapy, I recommend Correcting the Code by Larry Thompson, a fascinating and comprehensive look at the earliest attempts at fixing faulty genes. From those early days, science has doggedly marched on. Even though gene therapy is still not in wide use, it continues to hold great promise. According to the Journal of Gene Medicine, more than 2,000 gene therapy clinical trials were approved worldwide between 1990 and 2015. A host of diseases ranging from immune deficiencies to Parkinson’s disease are now being treated. The gene-editing technique known as CRISPR-Cas9 is also real.
Like anything else, of course, gene therapy and molecular medicine have a dark side. They must first prove to be safe and effective before treatments can be delivered to a broader audience. Then, too, there is the criminal element. Just as any technology can be used for good or bad, the possibility exists that bioengineering could be perverted to suit the needs of the less well intended. In August 2015, when scientists at Stanford University announced they’d created strains of yeast that can produce narcotic drugs, talk turned almost immediately to fears the technology could be more useful to drug traffickers than to pharmaceutical companies. Imagine a future when the bad guys can brew opiates from genetically modified strains of yeast as easily as if they were manufacturing craft beer in their basements. No wonder there are calls for drug enforcement agencies to become better prepared to control this nascent science. Author Marc Goodman explores these subjects and more in greater detail in his book Future Crimes. I recommend you check out Marc’s work. Very thoughtful — if not a little scary. Marc's website is here. You can also see a TED talk by Marc if you follow this link.
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