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Genetic Linkage

Creating Life and Curing Blindness

I’ve been at the American Society of Gene and Cell Therapy annual meeting this week, garnering tales for my book, tentatively entitled “The Forever Fix.” It is largely the story of 9-year-old Corey Haas, who was on his way to certain blindness when gene therapy performed at the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia in September 2008 restored his failing vision. Francis Collins, director of the NIH, told Congress about Corey last week.

Corey, his parents, and “Dr. Jean” Bennett, who made it all possible, were the stars of a press conference and a huge symposium. Corey got up on stage and calmly and clearly answered questions, bringing forth tears, hugs, and handshakes from usually staid scientists. But earlier in the day, hardly any reporters showed up at the press conference – because, I suspect, of Craig Venter's announcement elsewhere in Washington, DC that he and his team had essentially created life. It felt a little like Farrah Fawcett’s death being overshadowed by Michael Jackson’s.

The bloggers and bioethicists will surely go wild over Venter’s latest, which was really only a matter of time, considering his work since 1995. And I can’t help but admire the skill in running a cell on a synthetic genome. But taking it to the next step, speculating about designing life to meet our own ends, reeks of the ultimate hubris, to think that we can improve on 3.2 billion years of evolution.

I think I’ll leave the designing of life to Venter et al. I am more astonished by the delivery of a single gene into the eye of a boy who can now see.

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