Reviewed by E.B. Heath
It is clear the race to genetically modify humans is relentless as an incoming tide. Anthropologists, ethicists, and activists, at pains to slow the surge, are having as much success as King Canute’s futile attempts to control the sea. Furthermore, genetic experiments are not just happening in well-regulated laboratories!
In The Mutant Project: Inside the Global Race to Genetically Modify Humans, anthropologist Eben Kirksey investigates whose values are guiding genetic research, and what might the implications be for humanity. Kirksey does an excellent job providing information that is easily digested, to present a solid foundation for readers to consider the issues. He is an expert on science and justice, a member of the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton and an associate professor of anthropology at Deakin University, Melbourne. Kirksey is the author of Freedom in Entangled Worlds and Emergent Ecologies.
His research for this work took him far and wide, speaking to key scientists, lobbyists, entrepreneurs, doctors, hackers, chronically ill patients, and even activists with creative ideas on genetic modifications. Only a few salient points are mentioned here regarding the tools used for genetic modification, the range of people involved and the rise and fall of Chinese scientist Jiankui He.
Kirksey explains the technology currently used to tinker with human genes. It is clear that the metaphors used to describe gene modification, such as gene editing or genetic engineering, are misleading. ‘Editing’ or ‘engineering’ suggests an act of precision, something that is controlled. Surprisingly, this is not the case.
To modify genes, scientists use an enzyme referred to as CRISPR, an acronym for: clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats. Its discovery has in the main replaced the older zinc finger gene-editing tool. CRISPR can be primed to target particular genes responsible for various diseases or viruses such as HIV. However, Kirksey points out that CRISPR does not have precise editorial functions; it is, apparently, more like a tiny Reaper drone that while doing targeted work can also persist in cells for weeks damaging DNA that is a near match for the intended gene target. Readers might think this is reason enough to take time to evaluate the results of experiments over time. However, it seems that longitude studies are being neglected in favour of immediate commercial gains.
Kirksey’s investigation reports that decisions within research and experimentation are being ruled by big business and that some scientists are being co-opted by the agenda of IVF clinics and pharmaceutical companies. Kirksey illustrates the above through the rise and fall of Chinese scientist, Jiankui He. Kirksey explored Jiankui He’s background from poor rural village to fast-paced Shenzhen. In this, readers will get a glimpse into modern China.
Jiankui He announced at a conference in 2018 that he had successfully used CRISPR to edit genes of an embryo, removing the gene that enables the HIV virus to flourish. The prospective parents were keen to participate in the experiment as the father was HIV positive. A successful pregnancy ensued and the first genetically altered babies – twin girls – were born.
Jiankui was initially acclaimed as an innovator of scientific advancement. But following scrutiny on how the experiment was executed, he received widespread condemnation. This influenced the Chinese government to hand him a three-year jail term. Although, Jiankui did have a financial interest in the experiment, on reading the full account readers might detect a tad of hypocrisy on both sides of the globe. Echoing familiar messages to ‘move fast and break things’, Chinese leaders were encouraging scientists to shatter boundaries, be innovative, be global leaders within the scientific community. Be cautious and thorough didn’t seem to feature. Furthermore, perhaps Western angst re China as a superpower might have influenced the global shock horror that followed. As it stands, America does not now have as many controlling regulations as China. Profit-driven companies can offer customers the chance to modify their genes, often for only cosmetic purposes. That said, it must be mentioned that members of the Gay community infected with HIV are demanding gene therapy, experimental or not.
Chapter 11, ‘Immortality has to be the Goal’, gives an account of how gene experimentation has escaped from laboratories. Tristan Roberts, motivated by principles of social and economic justice, attempted to genetically modify himself at home while being live streamed on Facebook. He was aided by David Ishee, who had learnt the basics of genetic engineering via downloading papers from YouTube! David had created small loops of synthetic DNA that mimicked how viruses got into the nucleus, and proceeded to manufacture the synthetic chromosome with his home-made bioreactor. (At this point I had to remind myself that I was not reading a futuristic dystopian novel.) It was Aaron Traywick, a hopeful high-flyer, who bankrolled Ishee. Traywick was in the process of raising money to start up a biotech company with the goal of democratizing genetic therapies. Talking a big game, he claimed his company would soon have cures for a long list of ailments, including cancer, herpes and … mortality. Hard to know whether to laugh or cry – I settled on a deep concern about the future.
In the Epilogue, Kirksey records his interview with visionary writer, Donna Haraway. Donna was imagining a future where gene editing could save endangered species by means of fusing humanity with their genes. Monarch butterflies were given as an example; apparently, this would help humans to have compassion with other species. As a thought experiment, this is intriguing.
To quote Kirksey’s final two sentences: Now we also have the opportunity to be ever more audacious with our imagination. It is time to make new personal and political choices about the future of human biology.
If those any choices are irrevocably written into human biology, it poses an awkward question. How can we make decisions, at such a fundamental level, for future humans whose democratic desires we cannot know?
Black Inc. Books