Tuesday, June 26, 2018

BEYOND “THE JURASSIC WORLD”: ETHICS IN SCIENTIFIC DEVELOPMENT

By Lily Hikam*)

As part of a relaxing weekend to reward myself for passing my PhD candidacy exam, a friend and I went to the movies to watch the newest rendition of the Jurassic Park franchise, Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom(JW:FK). Now as a disclaimer, this post might contain spoilers from the movie. So if you haven’t seen it, stop reading and come back again only after you have seen it. But if you don’t care about being spoiled, then read on, brave souls!
First off, let me begin by saying that I’m no movie critic, just someone who enjoys watching a good movie, and all in all JW:FK is a pretty good movie. And yet, in my humble opinion, like most Hollywood sequels the JW: FK fails to surpass its predecessor’s success (let this be a cautionary tale for you, Russo Brothers! I expect the fourth Avengers movie to be even better than JW!). So this new movie has failed to live up to the success of its predecessor (Jurassic World, 2015). It suffered from having too many sub-plots within the movie, that on the whole it felt a little disjointed, the story telling was not as fluid as JW. Some sub-plots, like the auction of the rescued dinosaurs, just felt out of place. The introduction of new characters felt a little hasty that I’m not even sure what purpose these new characters serve in the grand scheme of things. To be fair, this sequel movie has marvelous action scenes, a few tear-inducing scenes (involving dinosaurs, of all things) and the obligatory kissing scenes between the two leads (which I would argue is unnecessary since they’re not even a couple anymore, but I digress). LoL!

Now let’s get to the plot summary: three years after the devastation at Isla Nublar, the remaining dinosaurs are faced with a second extinction event when the volcano at Isla Nublar reactivates. Our leading lady, Claire (portrayed by Bryce Dallas Howard), working for a Dinosaur NGO called Dinosaur Protection Group (DPG), lobbied Congress for legislative action to rescue these dinosaurs from Isla Nublar. Congress, in a shocking turn of events of actually doing something, decided not to intervene an “Act of God” that can potentially restores the natural balance that was perturbed when John Hammond and Benjamin Lockwood decided to clone dinosaurs and brought them back to life.

When Benjamin Lockwood asked  Claire to rescue these dinosaurs and transport them to a new sanctuary, she assembled a group of ragtag Dinosaur Rights Activist which included Owen, the velociraptor wrangler from JW (portrayed by Chris Pratt). Long story short, the rescue mission turned out to be a ruse for dinosaur trafficking; Henry Wu made a new and even nastier species of Dinosaur (the aptly named Indoraptor) capable to be weaponized; and a lot of humans were eaten and/or harmed during the process. The movie ended with Maisie Lockwood, Benjamin Lockwood’s granddaughter who was actually a clone of his late daughter, released all of the surviving dinosaurs into the wild because she reasons these dinosaurs are clones like her and deserve to live despite the way they came to be. As a result, humans now will have to learn to co-exist with dinosaurs, creatures whose reign on Earth nature (and fate, maybe) has deemed to be over 66 million years ago.
Now I’ve stated earlier that the story telling and execution of JW:FK left a lot of things to be desired. But as a scientist, the themes that the writers managed to highlight in this science-fiction picture (emphasis on the “fiction” part of the genre) gave me a lot to think about.
From the beginning of this franchise, starting with Jurassic Park, the way that these Dinosaurs came to be is by extracting Dinosaur DNA that was trapped in amber and to use this DNA sample as a basis to clone them. Setting aside the fact that there is no way DNA can last 66 million years in amber without being degraded, these dinosaurs were produced using a technique that is very well established in the scientific community: reproductive cloning. I’m sure by now everyone is aware of the story of Dolly the Sheep, the first mammalian to be produced by reproductive cloning. Dolly was produced using a technique called Somatic Cell Nuclear Transfer (SCNT). As the name implies, SCNT involves the transfer of nucleus from one cell to another.

When performing SCNT, you need two cells, one as the nucleus donor and the other as the recipient. The recipient is an egg cell, and its nucleus would be removed. We call this process of removing the nucleus from a cell enucleation (because biologists are great at naming things!)  The donor cell can be any type of cell, and it is the nucleus from this cell that will be the placed in the enucleated egg. Once the egg and nucleus fuse, it will be implanted to a surrogate mother until the fetus comes to term. The resulting individual will be genetically identical to the individual who donated the donor cell, or colloquially known as the clone of the donor.

To the best of my knowledge, human reproductive cloning is prohibited by the scientific community. Researches that utilizes cloning, such as embryonic stem cell research or genome editing of human embryos are subjected to intense regulations all around the world to prevent anyone producing human clones. There are still many aspects of embryogenesis and how life come to be that are not fully understood. Other than that, there are many concerns to producing cloned humans, some of which are:
1) Will this individual be a functional human being, or will there be health effects or other detrimental effect from the cloning process?
2) What are the consequences of producing the same genomic sequence to the gene pool? Will this increase the chances of an unknown deleterious genetic variant to be propagated thus causing detrimental effects to the society as a whole? and
3) Is it ethical to create life, just because we can?
In some ways, the first scientists in this movie, who cloned the dinosaurs, were playing God. By bringing these creatures back to life, they subverted the whole evolutionary process that has been meticulously “planned out” by nature. As a consequence, humans now will have to live with creatures that are meant to be extinct long before evolution has made it possible for humans to exist. Also, these dinosaurs, who didn’t asked to be created, was about to be subjected to a second extinction event. And now, the surviving members of the species are forced to live in a world and environment wholly incapable of supporting their existence.  And while animal reproductive cloning is not ethically prohibited, was it ethical to clone these dinosaurs? Was letting them perish in the volcanoes of Isla Nublar as a way to “correct” this aberration ethical?

These questions are obviously not new. The struggle between what is ethical and what is not in the face of scientific advances, especially ones that allows us to seemingly create something out of nothing, has been a battle as old as religion and science. It is my belief that along with advances in science there needs to be accompanying advances in law as well as ethical considerations to what this scientific progress might actually mean to us as human beings. The easiest way to think of this is: Just because we can do it, does that mean we should do it?

*)
PhD candidate, Zaragoza Lab
UCI Cardiogenomics Clinical and Research Program
Department of Biological Chemistry
The University of California, Irvine, School of Medicine
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