Elizabeth Finkel, former biochemist, and Editor-in-Chief of Cosmos Magazine, a science magazine that she co-founded in 2005, comes to terms with Patricia Piccinini. This is an extract from ‘Lines in the sand: A science writer comes to terms with Patricia Piccinini’ from the exhibition publication supporting ‘Patricia Piccinini: Curious Affection‘.
Patricia Piccinini in 2003 had shot to global fame representing Australia at that year’s Venice Biennale.
One of her key pieces in the Biennale was The Young Family 2002, a shockingly realistic sculpture of a human-like mother with her babies. Her pink fleshy body is pig-like, but her face and expression is human. Three of her babies are suckling; a fourth gurgles on its back, clutching its foot just like a human baby.
In 1998, researchers in Australia and the United States finally cracked the problem of how to cultivate stem cells from human embryos. Like the embryo, these cells had primordial power — they could multiply and give rise to any organ. But unlike a human embryo which rapidly relinquishes that power as it morphs into a body, stem cells keep their power forever. The potential was obvious. Like Prometheus stealing fire from the heavens, embryonic stem cells captured the stuff of human life. Any number of human illnesses and injuries might be cured — a new pancreas for a child with juvenile diabetes,, new spinal nerves to restore movement in a paralysed person, or new brain tissue to replace the loss caused by Parkinson’s disease.
Dystopian narratives abounded as the Australian government, like others around the world, debated how to capture this biological fire without being burnt.
In my view, those narratives were not useful. There were also several ethical arguments mounted against stem cell science. One that seemed to gain the most traction was that it was unethical because it required the destruction of human embryos — strange given that these five-day-old embryos did not have a single nerve cell, were ‘surplus’ and, hence, destined to be thrown out. Furthermore, even with fully mature human beings, we harvest their organs when they die to save the lives of others.
Another argument proposed that even if the initial uses of stem cells were acceptable, the ‘slippery slope’ of technology would seduce society into going places it shouldn’t. One of the key dystopian tropes involved human–animal chimeras just the sort of idea Piccinini had given physical form to with her ‘young family’. Piccinini’s work catches you unprepared — it’s the slippery slope in action.
The technology has existed since the 1970s; it’s the same technology that has created goats with spider silk in their milk or fast-growing pigs.1 Yet, decades on, people were not being genetically engineered.
We had drawn a moral line in the sand — for good reasons.
One was the unforeseen biological consequences; after all, our gene pool is the result of millions of years of natural selection. The diversity and imperfection we see in the human population reflects an optimised set of genes that allow us as a species to survive plagues and changing climates, and to adapt to new food sources.. And that has led to genetic trade-offs. For instance, to make the haemoglobin that carries oxygen through the bloodstream, you need a beta globin gene. If you inherit a ‘sickle cell’ form of the gene, you are at risk of anaemia and blocked blood vessels. On the other hand, you are protected against dying from malaria. But what of the other genetic tradeoffs we don’t know about? For the sake of future generations and the plagues and cataclysms they must face, it was considered too risky to tamper with a genetic legacy we don’t entirely understand.
So, in 2015, it was a shock when Chinese scientists announced they had crossed that moral line. They had genetically modified human embryos to correct a defect that causes beta thalassemia, another type of anaemia. The modified embryos were not capable of becoming babies; they were faulty embryos, rejected from an IVF clinic because they had been fertilised by two sperm. Nevertheless, the experiment heralded the beginning of another revolution.
This modifying of human embryos had been enabled by a new technology. CRISPR was a form of genetic engineering so precise, it had been renamed ‘genetic editing’.4 Traditional genetic engineering was clumsy — to successfully engineer a single embryo required attempts on hundreds or thousands of embryos. This degree of waste was deemed acceptable with animal embryos, but not with the ten or so embryos a woman typically produces during an IVF cycle.
Francis Collins, the director of the US National Institutes of Health (NIH),proclaimed his agency would not fund research viewed ‘almost universally as a line that should not be crossed’, although others like the National Academy of Sciences took a different view.5 They argued the risk of mistakes was too high to allow a genetically modified embryo to develop into a baby. However, they believed that research to refine the embryo editing technique should continue. And it has.
In 2016, a second Chinese team edited embryos to make them resistant to HIV by modifying a gene called CCR5; then, a third Chinese team corrected faulty genes that cause beta thalassemia and favism.6 Those experiments were all marred by errors — while one part of the DNA was correctly edited, errors were introduced in others. And, importantly, not every cell in the embryo was fixed. However, in 2017, a US group achieved error-free editing of a human embryo. In this case, they repaired a mistake in a gene (MYBPC3) that causes sudden cardiac arrest in one in every 500 people, without introducing errors elsewhere.7
Another moral line in the sand was crossed in 2017, this time concerning chimeras — creatures that are a mix of more than one animal. The name is drawn from Greek mythology, and refers to a fire-breathing beast with the head of a lion, a goat’s body and a serpent for a tail. In January 2017, I was taken aback by a paper reporting something almost as startling: a human–pig chimera.8
It was not exactly as Piccinini imagined: the chimera was a foetus that was destroyed four weeks into its development. Most of its tissue was derived from pig cells, but about one in 100 000 cells was human. None of the human cells contributed to the foetus’ brain function, as far as the researchers could tell.9 This was an important point of clarification because of an even stranger paper published in 2013. Researchers had grafted human brain cells (‘glial progenitors’) into mouse embryos, and, according to those researchers, the mice ended up smarter.10 (This finding was a surprise given these types of cells don’t actually relay signals; rather, like a maintenance crew, they help neurons stay in tiptop condition.)