Last week, a Nature News article reported that the Harvard geneticist George Church had modified over 60 genes in pig embryos using CRISPR/Cas9 gene editing. I’m sure you’re expecting my scientific perspective on the significance of this news in the context of the excitement and controversy over CRISPR-Cas9 gene editing—and I will discuss that here. But first, what really caught my attention are the amazing parallels this has to a series of books by one of my favourite authors. In Margaret Atwood’s MaddAddam trilogy, an engineered pandemic burns through the world’s population and the last remaining humans must share the remnants of civilization with the frightening experimental offspring of a prodigious, but diabolical, geneticist. These spliced creatures are at once freakish and familiar. Atwood creates a dystopia that looks a lot like Noah’s Ark gone wrong.
One of these creatures is the pigoon (introduced in Atwood’s Oryx and Crake.) Pigoons are pigs that have been genetically modified to produce organs that are safe for transplant to humans. Sounds like a good thing, right? Until we discover that the pigoons were also engineered to have human-like intelligence. In their fight for survival, pigoons turn the food chain upside down: The humans in Atwood’s story find themselves hunted by animals that they once farmed.
Pigoons are where fiction and reality are beginning to intersect. The implications of Dr. Church’s work are that genetic modification could make it possible to transplant pig organs into humans. However, what has been reported in the media represents only the very first steps towards this. In a meeting of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences (NAS) focused on human gene editing, Church reported that his group used CRISPR/Cas9 to deactivate over 60 retroviruses that are permanently integrated into the pig genome, and which may have the potential to cause disease in humans. In a separate set of experiments, CRISPR/Cas9 was used to modify over 20 genes including those responsible for an immune-mediated clotting response.
While Dr. Church’s latest work eerily echoes Atwood’s fictional pigoons, it does not signal that we are doomed to end up like the characters in the MaddAddam trilogy. First, the results of the pig embryo editing experiments have yet to be published, and currently we lack many details around how this work was actually done. Next, and the real point to emphasize, is that these experiments were performed in pig embryos only. As this story unfolds, we will need to answer important questions around the viability of these embryos.
While the parallels between reality and fiction are remarkable in this case, it is no need for alarm.
This latest development in the CRISPR/Cas9 story encouragingly tells us that this technique is living up to its promise of being able to alter many genes simultaneously—making it superior to existing gene editing technologies. Ultimately, Dr. Church’s work is an early step towards realizing the huge potential of CRISPR/Cas9 gene editing to treat complex diseases that require the targeting of multiple genes.
As we continue to push the boundaries of discovery in the lab, this type of close encounter between real-life science and science fiction will no doubt become more common.
In this particular instance, what is remarkable is that Atwood has used her keen insight to beat scientists at their own game, and predict the direction of a new and exciting line of research. Here, Atwood reminds us that scientists don’t have the market cornered on discovery.
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