by Guest Blogger,
Tyler Kokjohn, Ph.D.
Why does Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley’s Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus still grip readers two centuries after it was written? The technologies and situations have changed, but perhaps her iconic cautionary tale resonates with modern audiences because blind ambition, ethically ambiguous methods and ill-considered overreach are still so clearly alive in science today.
Over the centuries scientific research has been transformed into a highly professionalized, elite enterprise and today scientists operate under formal frameworks guiding the ethical conduct of research. However, breakthroughs often signify breached limits to scientific reach and researchers grasping at new goals may discover themselves trespassing on tricky ethical territories. Even the most accomplished and intelligent researchers can be challenged by an unscripted test of principles with disastrous impacts on public relations. Sometimes sheer, raw enthusiasm takes command prompting a leading scientist to pontificate unwisely about adventurous surrogate mothers for Neanderthal infants (1). Even worse, frustration over governmental regulations controlling publication of research with killer influenza viruses induced another investigator to blurt out intemperate and alarming responses (2).
Exasperation and a sense of urgency has enticed some scientists to cut corners. Important evidence infections could produce stomach inflammation and ulcers was produced when an investigator drank a culture of bacteria obtained from a patient suffering with gastritis (3). The CEO of a biotechnology company recently volunteered to receive unapproved (and unproven) genetic therapies designed to combat aging and muscle degeneration (4). The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) makes allowances for compassionate medical use of experimental drugs, but it is unclear if this particular situation would have qualified. The unorthodox work revealing the role of the bacterium now known as Helicobacter pylori in gastric diseases and cancer led ultimately to a Nobel Prize. Perhaps the risky personal gamble on genetic therapy will pay off as handsomely.
CRISPR-Cas9 genome editing technology may soon give us nearly God-like powers to transform ourselves and our environment. All facets of this research are advancing quickly and the first U. S. agency approval to conduct trials to assess the safety of CRISPR editing of human subjects has been announced (5). Recognizing CRISPR editing technology had far outrun both scientific knowledge and effective oversight, a group of leading scientists urged their colleagues to refrain from experiments creating inheritable modifications to the human genome (6). However, the issues are contentious with one distinguished scientist arguing banning research on human germline editing would end up making the situation worse (7). He suggested the focus should be on improving germ line editing safety and efficacy.
Frankenstein was conceived in simpler times. Biomedical research today is a collaborative and expensive enterprise with sometimes far-reaching consequences. Scientists compete with each other for funding and resources; a harsh and unforgiving subculture which demands its denizens publish, establish priority or perish. And today more may be at stake than professional prestige. Scientific research leading to patents and marketable products can be outrageously lucrative. The CRISPR gold rush is on and many leading scientists have founded gene editing companies. The Nobel Prize is nice, but a broad ambit patent could pull down a lot more cash. How do patent positions, corporate board memberships and consultancy arrangements influence the prognostications and opinions of leading scientists? It is hard to tell because many have published commentary papers in prestigious scientific journals and been quoted in high-profile news media without having to reveal any competing interests.
The changes wrought by science are mind boggling. However, if Mary Shelley could observe what is transpiring today she might recognize something familiar; the lessons conveyed by Frankenstein’s moral compass are as relevant today as they were over 200 years ago.
(1) P. Bethge and J. Grolle. 2013. Interview with George Church: Can Neanderthals Be Brought Back from the Dead? Spiegel Online International, 18 January 2013. http://www.spiegel.de/international/zeitgeist/george-church-explains-how-dna-will-be-construction-material-of-the-future-a-877634.html
(2) D. Butler. 2012. Mutant-flu researcher plans to publish even without permission. Nature, 17 April 2012. http://www.nature.com/news/mutant-flu-researcher-plans-to-publish-even-without-permission-1.10469
(3) P. Weintraub. 2010. The Doctor Who Drank Infectious Broth, Gave Himself an Ulcer and Solved a Medical Mystery. Discovery Magazine, 8 April 2010. http://discovermagazine.com/2010/mar/07-dr-drank-broth-gave-ulcer-solved-medical-mystery
(4) A. Regalado. 2015. A Tale of Do-It-Yourself Gene Therapy. An American biotech CEO claims she is the first to undergo gene therapy to reverse aging. Judge for yourself. MIT Technology Review, 14 October 2015. https://www.technologyreview.com/s/542371/a-tale-of-do-it-yourself-gene-therapy/
(5) S. Reardon. 2016. First CRISPR Clinical Trial Gets Green Light From US Panel. Nature, 22 June 2016. http://www.nature.com/news/first-crispr-clinical-trial-gets-green-light-from-us-panel-1.20137
(6) N. Wade. 2015. Scientists Seek Moratorium on Edits to Human Genome That Could be Inherited. The New York Times, 3 December 2015. http://www.nytimes.com/2015/12/04/science/crispr-cas9-human-genome-editing-moratorium.html
(7) G. Church. 2015. Perspective: Encourage the Innovators. Nature, 3 December 2015. http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/v528/n7580_supp/full/528S7a.html