Beware of man-made monsters created in laboratory

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Genetic modification has been a horror in literature and the media for a generation; from Wyndham’s Triffids to Knight’s Zombies, Herbert’s Rats to Boulle’s Gorrillas. Yet grey ooze has failed to devour the countryside, and GM corn can actually be quite tasty. Does that mean our fears are groundless?

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In 2001 the New Scientist reported that researchers had isolated a gene for regenerating damaged organs from the DNA of a South American flatworm – Planarian schmidtea mediterranea.

Like other planarians, Schmidtea mediterranea exhibits an extraordinary ability to regenerate lost body parts. For example, a planarian split lengthwise or crosswise will regenerate into two separate individuals.

Isolating genes has become routine, but results remain sensitive due to the potential for commercial exploitation and success could yield extreme rewards.

A gene for regeneration is a case in point. If ageing could be stopped or even reversed, and diseased or damaged organs regrown, life could be extended well beyond a natural span. No longer would you expect to retire and wait for death. You might remain fulfilled and active for ever, your worn out parts simply regrown and replaced.

At an office somewhere around about now, a lead scientist is telling the board how to turn a Genetic Modification for regeneration into a product that can be injected directly into the bloodstream by recombining human DNA with that of the planarian.

“The key to the entire treatment is the flatworm. In 1999 a project at Utah University discovered that silencing the flatworm’s smedwi-2 gene switched on an ancient ability for regeneration. But the team was unable to establish which genes were responsible for differentiating the re-growing stem cells into the correct body parts. After all, we don’t want muscle cells growing in the eyes, or cardiac cells turning up in the neural cortex.”

“My team has expanded their work and isolated the accountable genes. This gives a mechanism for continuously repairing old or damaged tissues. Potentially forever.”

“The regeneration genes are inserted into the retro-virus T156 and incubated in Xeno pigs kept in sterile conditions. The pigs have a perfect human immune response. They are the manufacturing plant for the virus. Within two weeks of infection, each pig harbours billions of viruses in every organ of its body.”

“We harvest the active agent by separating the pig tissues from the virus. It is a remarkably low-tech process, mostly concerned with agriculture and swine herding.”

“The harvested virus is injected directly into the blood stream where it will be taken up by a small percentage of cells. The protein subsequently synthesised, switches latent regenerative introns into activity, and it is this function which causes damaged organs to repair.”

Is this scenario fiction?Very early in the development of recombinant DNA techniques, the public feared that mad scientists would create GMOs (genetically modified organisms) with unanticipated and potentially dangerous properties; grey ooze would flood the country side devouring everything in its path.

The concern led to a proposal for a voluntary moratorium on recombinant DNA research in 1974, and to a meeting in 1975 at the Asilomar Conference Centre in California.

Participants at Asilomar agreed to safety standards, including the use of disabled bacteria that were unable to survive outside the laboratory. While this conference quelled much of the media frenzy  it also led to a rapid expansion of powerful technologies.

That was nearly forty years ago!

Since then the human genome has been completely decoded by Craig Venter, and a host of Genetically modified organisms have been released into the environment, particularly for use in agriculture.

While nobody is yet claiming to have created a GM human, the technology exists and is certain, one day, to be put into practice.

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