The concept of human engineering is a relatively new one. When one thinks of a perfectly engineered human, they tend to imagine a futuristic, Jetson-like setting, with spaceships for cars and robots for butlers.
Such realities seemed much too far advanced to be possible… Yet, 2015 was marked the first year of the beginning of a new era of scientific possibilities beyond our comprehension. In that year, the first human embryos were successfully “edited”. This signifies a pivotal moment in medical history. Editing human genes can benefit humanity in several ways but more pertinently in preventing genetic disorders that were once incurable. For DNA mutations such as Hemophilia, sickle cell anemia, cystic fibrosis, though treatments may be available, no cure has yet been found…
Which brings me to the focus of this article, and a more narrowed down example of this incredible progress in genetic engineering that is happening within our own city limits.
At McGill University in Montreal, can be found the lab of Dr. Eric Shoubridge, specialising in human mitochondrial diseases in the department of Human Genetics and Neurology and Neurosurgery.Their focus is “on the molecular genetics of human mitochondrial respiratory chain defects.” These deficiencies are the cause of numerous “multisystemic disorders“, that mainly impede the function of the nervous system and muscle in addition to the function of single organs including “skeletal muscle,the central nervous system, kidneys, endocrine organs and the gastrointestinal system“.
Their studies have determined that mutations found in the maternally inherited RMND1 gene (responsible for encoding the protein involved in mitochondrial translation, in laymans terms, it “generates the chemical energy that all cells need to function“) were fatally accountable for acute neurodegenerative disorders in two infants. More fascinatingly, it was found that this mitochondrial dysfunction may be the root cause of “adult-onset disorders like Parkinson’s disease“. If you already understand the complexity, diversity and severity of this disorder that around 55000 Canadians suffer from, then you can imagine how this research can be extremely useful and important to neurodegenerative disorder research.
As a solution, Dr. Shoubridge has come up with possible processes that involves replacing mutated mitochondrial DNAs (mtDNAs) with healthy ones in two possible methods:
- The first, known as the pronuclear transfer, which takes the pronuclei, the sperm and egg nuclei before fertilization, from the original egg that “harbours some mutated mtDNAs” into a cell will healthy mtDNA and no nucleus.
- The second, known as the meiotic-spindle transfer, takes nuclear DNA (“DNA that is contained within a nucleus of eukaryotic organisms“), and transfers it to a healthy, nucleus free egg in which it would be fertilized, as demonstrated below.
“Parents who have had a child with a mitochondrial disorder and who are hesitating to have another child now have the possibility to know the cause of the disease. With genetic information, they have reproductive options like in vitro fertilization.” – Dr. Eric Shoubridge
This means that parents who fear that their children will suffer from a specific hereditary neurodegenerative disorder, now have the possibility of completely removing the mutation from their reproductive cells and subsequently from their children’s lives.
As seen in Margaret Atwood’s, Oryx and Crake, medical advancement has reached an all time high where the scientific limits we understand have been chewed up and ruminated until totally broken down and made into a new substance. In short, medical limitations no longer exist and researchers have reached a point where they’re creating boundaries in order to break them down… for fun!
Awesome concepts such as designer babies come up in the novel in reference to the company RejoovenEsense and their new service offering parents the chance to chose any feature, “physical, mental or spiritual” (Atwood) for their future children, and more applicably they have the option of having “certain hereditary diseases […] screened out”(Atwood).
In the novel, this process is described as an imperfect science, however, it is possible and as we know now from the information that I’ve presented, even in our reality is such engineering possible. Soon we too will be able to engineer our children to predetermine their future health.
Christodoulou, John. “Genetic defects causing mitochondrial respiratory chain disorders and disease.” European Society of Human Reproduction & Embryology (n.d.): n. pag. Web.
Shoubridge, Eric A. “Biomedicine: Replacing the cell’s power plants.” Nature News. Nature Publishing Group, 30 Nov. 2016. Web. 15 Feb. 2017.
Wong, Suzy L., Heather Gilmour, and Pamela L. Ramage-Morin. “Parkinson’s disease: Prevalence, diagnosis and impact.” Government of Canada, Statistics Canada. N.p., 27 Nov. 2015. Web. 15 Feb. 2017.
“Editing Human Embryos: So This Happened.” National Geographic. National Geographic | Phenomena, 15 Oct. 2015. Web. 15 Feb. 2017.
“Mitochondrial genetic disorders.” National Institutes of Health. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, n.d. Web. 15 Feb. 2017.
“Molecular Neurogenetics.” Neuro. McGill, n.d. Web. 15 Feb. 2017.
“REQUIRED FOR MEIOTIC NUCLEAR DIVISION 1, S. CEREVISIAE, HOMOLOG OF; RMND1.” OMIM. OMIM, n.d. Web.
“Scientists discover gene behind rare disorders.” Canadian Association for Neuroscience. CAN-ACN, n.d. Web. 15 Feb. 2017.