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Letter From The Editor: Wow, Genetically Modified Humans!


What if in our first studies of the universe beyond, we began by using the wrong end of the telescope? It would probably have led to some confusion for a while. I was thinking about that when I finally made time to read this week’s “wow” stories.

These are the stories about scientific research that capture my personal attention, mostly because my only reaction is “wow.” I figure one must keep an eye on science because usually it ends up trumping politics over time, and sometimes you can spot a turning point.

Leukemia is known to be a life-threatening and sometime incurable type of cancer. Common cancer fighting treatments such as chemotherapy can sometimes fail to combat it. But now comes a new option that involves genetically altering your own immune cells, and in a little more than a week later, the leukemia is entirely gone.

Such are the real results of rigorous research at the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, reported in the journal Science Translational Medicine. So far, it’s all still experimental, but genetically engineered immune cells are said to be “highly promising” for curing a whole slew of cancers and tumors including those that trouble the prostate gland.

Also in my “wow” pile of news clips are some involving “three parent IVF” and “mitochondrial replacement.” This is a method of eliminating “genetic fault” from the family tree by using the DNA of three people, not just two, to make a baby.

Yes, a genetically modified human infant.

The Human Fertilization and Embryology Authority (HFEA) reports that about 1 in 200 babies are born with a fault in their mitochondria. These can be progressive and eventually fatal, but with enough time can also be passed down to the next generation. Muscle, neurological, visual, hearing and heart conditions are typically the type of defects that result.

But for the past couple years, we’ve known how to remove the faulty mitochondrial DNA and replace it with healthy genes. And then if both parents have the same problem, a third party is added into the mix.

The result is a genetically modified human. It makes me wonder if, five years from now, such a person will have to be labeled as a Genetically Modified Organism (GMO) before being allowed to shop at Whole Foods, which says all GMOs in its stores will have to be labeled as such by 2018.

The scientists involved in using three DNA contributions to make one baby are, to their credit, asking about the ethical and legal issues now. At this point, they are only talking about using the medical technique to eliminate fatal defects.

But what happens when a couple just wants to change out some DNA to make the family a bit more attractive?

My guess from recent events is that nobody is going to be able to get in the way of genetic modifications that cure, reverse or prevent disease. I remember how quickly concerns about stem cell research evaporated once we were told it could cure muscular dystrophy or heart disease.

Who among us is really against genetic modification if the option is our own death of cancer?

But think of where all this started. Some agricultural scientist – probably at an American land grant university – had thoughts about changing a gene to make some root cell more drought resistant.

The rest, as they say, is history, as we’ve had a couple of decades of stirred controversy over genetic modification. It was pretty well recapped by environmental writer Mark Lynas who admitted at the Oxford Farming Conference last January that his leadership of the European opposition to GM crops was not based on science but fear mongering. And then, he said this:

“We no longer need to discuss whether or not it is safe – over a decade and a half with three trillion GM meals eaten there has never been a single substantiated case of harm.”

You can pretty much say what you want about genetically modified root cells, seeds, weeds and the like. It’s all part of the universe that very few know or care about. Less than two percent of the U.S workforce is involved in agriculture. That’s not many to go up against everyone else who eats a load of fear mongering.

But turn the telescope around, and we are now talking about what genetic modification can do directly for all us humans. Sure, medical and ethical issues abound. But if some genetically engineered work on immune cells can cure cancer, I would not want to be standing in the way.

© Food Safety News
  • Kathy Heinisch

    Years ago I had a cat that was on deaths door from Feline Leukemia, 3 sep. vets offices said He was beyond any hope..THEN, a 4th Vet informed Me of a study that was being Conducted at the University of Penna. “Immunotherapy” I signed up, We went once a week for 3 months, He lived a full and normal life for 10 years,Thanks to that study..otherwise He would not have made it to 7 months of age..I hope the modified cell therapy is the key to curing cancers in Humans.

  • Michael Bulger

    I think that lumping all GMOs together is reductionist. The GMO crops currently in use are not comparable to life-saving cures for cancer. Agriculture is an infinitely complex practice that involves, not only interactions between climate and wildlife, but also multiple genes inside of plants. Many farmers oppose the misconception that issues of drought, famine, and nutrition would be best solved through the limited capabilities of GMOs.

    I can agree with Dan in the sense that I would not want to stand in the way of curing cancer. I don’t have any opposition to GMOs in principle. However, I am underwhelmed by what they already have accomplished, and what they have the potential to accomplish, in agriculture. Too often, both sides of the debate resort to what Dan might call “fear-mongering”. Whether that is imagining diabolical GMO conspiracies, or equating Round-Up Ready corn to a definitive example of the benefit and safety of all GMOs, the true intellectual discourse cannot be captured by soundbites from the extremes.

  • Emily Nelson

    The kind of genetic modification that Mendel did was simply to graft plants to select for a desirable trait. Inserting a fish gene into tomatoes is completely different and unprecedented in human history. What GMO opponents say is that there are no long term studies showing this manipulation is safe. Furthermore, GMO foods should be labeled since people have the right to know what they are eating. Finally, 15 years is not long enough to see any human health damage from GMO foods, especially since those problems are not even being tracked. And it’s very difficult, if not impossible, to link the types of damage advocates are concerned about, i.e. cancer, to a specific source unless it’s cigarette smoking.

  • Mike_Mychajlonka_PhD

    Genetic engineering is not a concept that is a very easy thing. Genetic work is often stuffed with so much jargon that what superficially seems like English reads like another language. Humans have always been afraid of what they do not understand. It seems reasonable to say that, by definition, a genetically-engineered organism (plant or people or anything in between) is something that evolution did not select for. We can see the advantages and base our feelings on those. Yet, are we as prescient to recognize the dangers as well as the disadvantages? By way of example, consider the old (and now discredited) concept of all the “junk” DNA that humans carry around with them. Since this DNA did not code for any products that we could see, it was once considered useless, some sort of evolutionary relic. Now we know that all this “extra” DNA (expensive to make and replicate) contains regulatory elements and is not junk at all. How reversible are the genetic modifications we make? Certainly the wizards who make such genetic modifications want them to be stable genotypically and phenotypically, meaning that easy reversibility is not the goal. Should it be? Will that affect the bottom line of Monsanto and others? Maybe. On the other hand, it might also be a way to put the genie back in the bottle, should we decide later that the advantage we first saw comes at too high a price.

  • John Marcy

    I enjoyed your thought process, Mr. Flynn. Thank you.

  • farmber

    A closely scrutinized use of medical genetics on a case by case basis might — or might not — be appropriate, as there’s no one-size that fits-all and the doctor/researchers need to be able to change course at a moments notice.

    But WOW! — Not so with GMO foods — especially with the patent holders in control of the research and regulatory processes.

  • Mackenzie Dierks

    I enjoyed this piece, thank you for sharing your thoughts. So often the perception is that technology has no place in agriculture, contrary to most other occupational areas. I’m not sure if it’s fear of the unknown, a belief that food production methods don’t have room for improvement, or simply miscommunication and misunderstanding. GMO and non-GMO both have positive and negative attributes. However, often times a person is more than happy to tell you that they are against GMOs but can’t really explain why.
    The concept of changes to mitochondrial DNA calls to mind sci-fi thrillers such as Gattaca. Isn’t science interesting!


    A good debate opener. One key point that deserved emphasis and differentiates between GMO food crops and the proposed use of mitochondrial DNA from a third individual to fix a genetic defect has been missed. In the case of GMO food crops – the GMO plant in many instances contains genetic material from more than one species. Where as in genetic cure proposed here, all DNA comes from Homo Sapiens.