Advancing Genetics

genetics

WHERE WILL IT ALL LEAD?

This very question was my starting point when I began the “Time Interventions” series. I intended to look far into the future and began to wonder where science would have led us by the twenty-third century. However, even the most informed predictions are inevitably highly speculative. When I was a schoolboy, for example, my teacher predicted that we’d all be flying around in spaceships and living on Mars by 2000. (That was a tad optimistic). But the space between fact and prediction gave me a niche to write in. I could speculate. There was sufficient evidential fact to show trends in scientific discovery over the past 50 years and that would be a guide for how things might go in the future.

I was about to write a fiction, after all, so I could allow my imagination to roam unfettered. But it would be within a science-fiction genre, so I was conscious of the need for some acknowledgement to real science. I discovered that real science is more fantastic than science fantasy could ever be. Let me cite a few examples of modern miracles.

Twenty-five years ago, my father had a hip and knee replacement – we used to call him bionic, even then, though he was no Steve Austin. Two of my wife’s nieces have required kidney transplants within the past two years, and at least two more of their siblings, (and perhaps several of their children) will need similar replacements in due course, because of inherited polycystic kidney disease. I was personally diagnosed with acute angina about sixteen years ago – that condition is controlled by medication and I live a normal, fulfilled and healthy life as a result. With medical interventions of the surgical, bionic and medication kinds, more of us are living longer.

In this connection, three major scientific ‘breakthroughs’ in the past year have particularly fascinated me.

The first, announced in February 2014, was legislation by the British Government permitting the creation of babies using sperm and eggs from three people. Cytoplasmic transfer of cells is not new, of course. It was pioneered in the late 1990s by Doctor Jacques Cohen, clinical embryologist at the St Barnabas Institute in New Jersey in the USA. The procedure prevents serious diseases caused by genetic faults in the mitochondria, which are found in human cells. The nucleus of the fertilised egg is removed from the cell of one woman and put into an egg cell from another woman, which has healthy mitochondria. Her healthy egg cell is then put back into the original mother, who will go on to give birth naturally, without any risk of her baby inheriting nasty genetic disorders – they will have been effectively screened out.

Second, in October 2014, a 40-year-old paralysed Polish man was able to walk again after breakthrough surgery transplanted cells from his nose into his spinal cord, which had been severed in a knife attack. The broken nerve pathway regenerated and the break was ‘bridged’.

Third, in June 2014, the University of Sydney in Australia announced it had successfully ‘manufactured’ replacement human organ tissue by 3D printing. They had already used the process to create several types of human tissue, most notably liver tissue which is currently being used in drug toxicity testing.

“While recreating little parts of tissues in the lab is something that we have already been able to do, the possibility of printing three-dimensional tissues with functional blood capillaries in the blink of an eye is a game changer. Of course, simplified regenerative materials have long been available, but true regeneration of complex and functional organs is what doctors really want and patients really need, and this is the objective of our work,” said study lead author and University of Sydney researcher, Doctor Luiz Bertassoni.

Important medical interventions are being made every day, in ways that would have been thought impossible even a few decades ago.

So whatever next, I thought. Imagine what will be accomplished in the next 300 years.

Well, I imagined, and I wrote.