Among all the stories of vaccines in the news, it was easy to miss the story on Friday that there could be a “superhero” vaccine developed. According to Professor Euan Ashley:
This has the potential to greatly reduce the burden of diseases with a genetic component such as Alzheimer’s disease, liver disease, coronary heart disease and associated conditions such as strokes, and vascular dementia.
The vaccine would work through modifying a gene:
Instead of changing a cell signal like a regular medication does the treatment would change a gene letter. The advantage, just like a vaccine, is that you would only need one injection and so wouldn’t have to take it every day like a regular medicine.
The prospect of adjusting genes recalled a ten day clergy course in 2007 at Saint George’s House in Windsor Castle. It was a course that brought an encounter with an eminent biologist who later became a Nobel laureate. The Chatham House rules operative at the conference forbade the naming of a person; one could quote, but not attribute.
The biologist lectured for an hour on human genetics and cloning. At times very technical, the lecture progressed to a point where it became disturbing. In the group sessions afterwards, those present were given five scenarios to consider. The first in the list of five was the use of IVF treatment to assist a couple to have a baby. The list then included progressively more complex interventions. The fifth scenario was that a couple had lost a child in a motor crash and there was the possibility of using genetic material from the dead child to clone it and thus recreate the child who had been lost.
Most present would probably have been of a fairly conservative and traditional frame of mind, however, a majority did approve of the use of IVF treatment. Support for intervention then declined scenario by scenario until there was barely any support for the idea of cloning a child.
The gathering reconvened for a plenary session and the biologist asked the clerical gathering for responses. He listened and declared, “you are as conservative as ever. You haven’t moved in years”.
Asked which interventions he would support, he responded, “All of them”.
What were his criteria for intervention?
“To relieve suffering”.
How did he describe “suffering?”
“Whatever the people affected believe suffering to be.”
The seasoned military padre beside me shifted uneasily on his seat and spoke up, “I have red hair. I was teased terribly as a child for having red hair. Do you think it would be appropriate to use genetic engineering if parents said they did not want a child with red hair?”
The scientist half shrugged and held his right hand open towards the questioner. “What do you think?”
When pressed, he responded in simple terms, “What can be done, will be done”.
It was a stark, blunt statement of the reality of the world in which the prospective Nobel laureate lived. The clergy there might have wished it otherwise, ethicists might wish it otherwise; most scientists might wish it otherwise; but if someone pre-eminent in their field suggests that what can be done will be done, then legal frameworks and perceptions of what is “rational” seem unlikely to inhibit such developments.
If what can be done will be done and if science can really develop a “superhero” vaccine, what might be the possibilities for evil as well as good might emerge?