Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Give Me Wings. No; Real, Actual Wings

Gene therapy transforms eyesight of 12 born with rare defect

Pennsylvania researchers using gene therapy have made significant improvements in vision in 12 patients with a rare inherited visual defect, a finding that suggests it may be possible to produce similar improvements in a much larger number of patients with retinitis pigmentosa and macular degeneration.

The team last year reported success with three adult patients, an achievement that was hailed as a major accomplishment for gene therapy. They have now treated an additional nine patients, including five children, and find that the best results are achieved in the youngest patients, whose defective retinal cells have not had time to die off.

The youngest patient, 9-year-old Corey Haas, was considered legally blind before the treatment began. He was confined largely to his house and driveway when playing, had immense difficulties in navigating an obstacle course and required special enlarging equipment for books and help in the classroom.

Today, after a single injection of a gene-therapy product in one eye, he rides his bike around the neighborhood, needs no assistance in the classroom, navigates the obstacle course quickly and has even played his first game of softball.

What an unvarnished good this is! You were blind, said the doctors, but now you can see. Downright biblical. Jesus with a lab coat.

Obviously, this kind of thing is designed for those whose eyesight was thought to be irreparably damaged by various genetic forms of degradation. My own vision, clouded as it is by astigmatism and the like, is a much more manageable 20/400, which allows me to utilize contact lenses and glasses in an ultimately successful attempt to attain normal sight. It’s non-essential for those of us who are merely blind compared to Ted Williams, not blind in reality.

However, should gene therapy become available to the point where it’s feasible for my doctor to prescribe it, I want to make my stance on the matter as clear as possible:

I will mainline that shit DIRECTLY INTO MY AORTA if I need to.

Look, I’ve heard all sorts of things about flaws being an inherent part of one’s character, ultimately necessary in the full construction of a personality.  I tend to subscribe to that point of view, except for the fact that physical flaws don’t count. A bad leg isn’t a character trait; it’s an impediment. Same with oily skin, or a bum ticker, or whatever. If there’s an option to improve one or all of the various maladies that beset me (as they do you all), I don’t see why we should stop for anything but tests to make sure this stuff doesn’t cause you to grow horns.*

*And who says that’s a bad thing?  I can think of lots of uses…well, OK, I can think of one use (handy-dandy can-opener), but that’s one more use than you had before you grew horns.

This plays heavily into my view of the steroid problem in sports, which is as follows: the problem with steroids is that the steroids they use are not good enough. Use them all you want, Barry Bonds or Mark McGwire or Manny Alexander or whomever. I don’t have a problem with what you’re doing. It’s the chemists I have a problem with. Come on, guys! You’re telling me this stuff is still giving our poor baseball players bacne? Step your game up!

As is customary, the trap here is economic. To mangle a great philosopher, with great purchasing power comes the ability to turn yourself into Spider-man. I can make my eyesight 20/10 through your standard gene therapy cocktail, but what’s to stop my richer neighbors from adding telescoping vision, or the ability to view the heat spectrum, or elbow-mounted machine guns?*

*I consider the lack of elbow-mounted machine guns, heat-seeking toenails, and laser hair to be compelling evidence against Intelligent Design, as all are frankly unforgivable oversights that would have gotten a putative Designer fired a long time ago.

It’s a far greater disparity than the fact that he has a Porsche and I have a Toyota – the only real difference is speed, aesthetics, and the amount of speeding tickets he gets compared to me—because such enhancements will fundamentally change who you are. “All men are created equal” may not look so profound when some of us have grafted wings to our backs, while others muddy along on the ground, still wholly human. “All men”, perhaps, but we’ll leave that second word behind. Perhaps sooner than you think. Or want.

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