I practiced English with a biologist from Korea early in the week. I learned that before our class, while I made oatmeal and drove to and from school, he planted garlic (Me: “When will you be able to harvest it?” Him: “109 bulbs.” Me: “Um, when will it be ready to dig up?” Him: Polite smile, silence). I really wanted to know his take on the Ebola virus disease and the gene repair tool in the news, but I was pretty sure those topics were beyond the scope of our conversational abilities. I remain excited about the possibility of fresh garlic at some point in my future.
I continued to think about my ESL student, a visiting scholar, all week as I read about the Ebola virus and listened to an interview with Jennifer Doudna on NPR. And I thought back to my graduate school days. Whenever I was immersed in basic science I’d see something along the lines of life-sized versions of T-cells in my dreams, and I'd do something like scurry after them breathlessly. “Excuse me. Who are you? And what are you doing?” Maddeningly, none of them ever answered. I could only study their behavior to get at their essence. I wonder if my student dreams about, say, practicing the past perfect tense in English.
While Jennifer Doudna was trying to figure out how bacteria fight the flu she discovered they can kill a virus with an enzyme, something she wasn’t expecting at all. Then she wondered, could the enzyme be used as a tool for editing human genes? Lots of information is available because of the genome project, but what isn’t known is how to fix or replace problems. Some of these will be hammered out with the tool she discovered, and the future may be as straightforward as removing a person’s blood cells, editing for an unwanted disease or genetic condition, and then putting the cells back in.
I have a BRCA1 gene mutation that probably would have caused my death already if I were a generation older. Mary-Claire King proved the genetic basis for breast cancer a handful of years before I had it the first time. After getting a second cancer I found out about my mutation; I don’t know if I would have survived a third. So my life may have been saved by the information, but at the fairly barbaric price of all my potentially cancerous organs. And now I have to hope not to die from sequelae of the surgeries meant to save me, like heart disease related to the premature loss of my ovaries and estrogen’s protective effect. If gene repair can be done in a customized manner the surgeries I, and so many others, have had will look like the equivalent of blood letting from the future, and the harmful nature of BRCA1 in my family will stop with me. I hope so.