Friday, August 19, 2016

How To Save A Life

This article discussed how the (relatively) new technology of CRISPR gene editing is soon to be used as an experimental treatment for lung cancer patients.  This is a huge step forward in genetics, and while some accuse China of moving too fast, this method seems to show a lot of promise, or at least a lot of people seem to think it does.  The little section of this article that popped out to me was the fact that they admit that it is possible for the modified cells to strike out against things other than the tumor they are created to oppose. 

The gene that is being removed in this trial is the gene that codes for protein PD-1, a protein that limits auto immune responses.  By removing this gene, this protein will cease to be created, and therefore will allow the cells to strike out against the tumor without hindrance, at least, that's the idea.  What stuck out to me was the fact that it is also possible that these modified cells stride out against other parts of the body, parts that could be very harmful to a person, especially an already ill one.

They even acknowledge this possibility in the article, however the scientists behind the study cite previously done trials that similarly block the PD-1 protein, saying that they, "did not see a high rate of autoimmune response." What really stands out to me here is how this potential danger is seen, known, acknowledged, and then justified.  How have these scientists determined that the possible benefits outweigh the possible harmful effects?  While they do state that the trial will start of with small amounts and then slowly increase with close monitoring, this is a big risk to be taking, especially as the true effects are really quite unknown.  This is delving more into the ethics of thing than the actual science, however I found it appalling that a justification made by a small group of people could jeopardize lives if their judgements are wrong.

On the other side of this, if their evidence that "a high rate of autoimmune response was not seen" is true, could it not be possible that the same limited response would be taken on the tumor? What if their "safety" is a factor that makes the treatment not very effective?  In this case then the scientists would be potentially risking the safety of the subjects for a very small result.  This article really made me think about how being a scientist is about so much more than science, especially in the power of judgement we rely on them to have.

1 comment:

  1. I like how you questioned the ethics of the experiment. To be honest, when I read this article and came to the spot where the "potential danger is seen, known, acknowledged, and then justified" by the scientists, I just accepted it. But you are right; this very well could be a huge gamble with human lives at stake. At one point you ask the question, "How have these scientists determined that the possible benefits outweigh the possible harmful effects?" The article doesn't discuss this much, but I imagine it would be possible for scientists to use models and simulations to find the probabilities of certain outcomes (looking at you, stats class.) Maybe it turned out that bad outcomes have a very low probability, so even though they are possible, they are unlikely enough to allow the scientists to feel confident running these experiments on actual humans. Even though it's not mentioned much in the article, it did say that the experiments have to be approved by certain organizations before they can be conducted. Therefore, there are some hoops to jump through, if you will, so any experiment done on humans is not simply a reckless waste of life. Nevertheless, I am interested to know more about the specifics of these hoops.