The Scientific Quest to Erase Fatness Is Wrong
This is a story of another time, of a plausible future 30 years from now, give or take, in which the human experience of life and health (and perhaps even of who we are) will unfold unlike anything known before. The citizens of this future will learn early in life — through some combination of next-next-next-generation genetic testing and intelligence gleaned from their smart accessories — whether they are heading toward disease: depression, dementia, diabetes, what have you. More important, they will be offered an exit strategy.
This is the opening of a January 2020 article in UCSF Magazine. It discusses the potentials of several in-progress genomic research initiatives intended to further various disease treatments and preventative measures. It also mentions different ethical viewpoints on the potential dangers of therapies, like germline engineering, capable of manufacturing intergenerational genetic changes. Imagine designer babies and designer grandbabies and designer great-grandbabies — whole designer family tree branches, if you will.
I returned to this story after seeing a recent article in Science Translational Medicine about a potential CRISPR-Cas9 therapy for “obesity” from an international team affiliated with Harvard Medical School. You’ve probably heard of CRISPR, the biotechnology adapted from bacteria that interacts with an enzyme (Cas9) to let researchers alter genes. There are now a few different variations serving, generally, this same purpose.
The Case for CRISPR Babies
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The Harvard team used CRISPR-Cas9 technology to alter the characteristics of different kinds of adipose tissue in fattened mice. In general, there are two types of adipose tissue: brown and white. Brown adipose tissue specializes in heat production and is generally considered to be “good fat,” since it burns calories while creating heat. White adipose tissue stores surplus energy in the form of triglycerides. Often deemed “bad” fat, excess white adipose tissue is what we…