Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Tue Mar 17, 2020 9:39 pm 
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The magical and troubling new possibilities of altering human genes

This fascinating and eye-opening new documentary is about genetic manipulation of humans. Nowadays, it is in the early stages, but the means have become available. Tellingly, a specialized journalist says that fewer people seem to be considering such manipulation unethical now that it can be done. If it can be done, it will be. Are we ready for it? Adam Bolt and his co-writer Regina Sobel interweave a discussion of the latest scientific breakthroughs with consideration of the older issue of whether playing with genetics is ethical, especially in humans. This is a clear treatment of a complex issue. But there is much more to be explained in future films.

A central character in the film is David Sanchez, a bright and articulate adolescent boy, African American, who has sickle cell disease. He is featured in the first chapter, "Needle in a Haystack." The gene for David's disease, when not dominant, is desirable. It protects from malaria, hence its value in sub-Saharan Africa and Mediterranean countries. Sickle cell disease, which gives you red blood cells that are sickle-shaped instead of round, and don't deliver the right amount of oxygen, is governed by a single misplaced letter of DNA.

Recently it has emerged that something exists that can find the "needle in a haystack" to "edit" DNA and eliminate an abnormality or disease. This something, called CRISPR ("clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats") could knock out that single letter. Surprisingly, CRISPR was first found by Philippe Horvath and Rodolphe Barrangou of the food firm Danisco in an effort to make Danisco's yogurt less susceptible to bacteria. It's something found in bacteria that combats viruses by deprogramming them from doing what they do, monopolize an organism. It has been found that CRISPR can also be used to alter or "edit" human DNA. A version of CRISPR is a virus-fighting protein called Cas9, that can precisely control or program the DNA editing process. CRISPR may be a twenty-first-century technological development as powerful as nuclear energy or the internet.

So the editing of DNA is now concretely feasible. But the film asks when it is necessary. David has had a lot of pain and spent a lot of time in Stanford Children's Hospital. Yet toward the end of the film he says he wouldn't choose not to have had sickle cell, because "that's part of the way I am." His family would probably think differently. He is more philosophical about his illness than his grandmother. Dr. Matthew Porteus, a hematologist, is at work on a clinical trial using CRISPR to repair and replace defective blood stem cells in patients with sickle cell, like David.

Another young person featured here is Ruthie Weiss, a girl who turned out to have been born with albinism. This causes defective vision, which couldn't be changed. Film footage shows that nonetheless Ruthie grew up to be a smart, happy and active child - so active in fact that her dream is to be a professional basketball player, though she admits "I don't think that is going to happen." She has trouble landing her shots. But her parents learned that her albinism was not cause for despair. She is an example that every inherited "defect" doesn't have to be corrected.

Apart from these abnormalities that might benefit from DNA editing. the film discusses elaborate, as it were "designer" manipulation, which various geneticists with companies are eager to go on the market and sell to future parents. Do we want human beings that are tweaked to a desired pattern, independent of nature - predetermined to be a tall, blond, blue-eyed "master race" or individuals who are super-strong, super-smart, impervious to pain, able to go on four hours of sleep, with faces sculpted by their parents' selections? This wouldn't lead to uniformity, someone points out, because the desires of parents differ, as to whether they are athletic, nerdy, or whatever themselves. But is it fair and safe to cheat mother nature? Moreover, at least at first such genetic tweaking of one's offspring would be a thing of the rich. Should the government make it free for all - or rule it out as unnecessary and dangerous?

Genetic manipulation has the aura of playing God. It also comes with a Nazi vibe and the unsavory notion of eugenics. As the film gets into the ethical issues, it brings up Aldous Huxley's frightening and surprisingly prescient futuristic novel, Brave New World and suggests that the 1997 movie Gattaca may now not be just a dystopian fantasy.

We need to be careful what we wish for. Designer gene manipulation focused only on certain characteristics ignores how complex human personality is. It won't deliver a perfect person. Breeding men to be warriors without fear and impervious to pain (which Russia's president Putin seems to like the idea of) smacks of playing with humans as toys of war. This could only lower the value of human life.

Utopian dreams of genetic manipulation ignore that human nature as a whole remains highly imperfect, and moreover overlooks the important role of environment, of nurture, in determining what people are like.

What it seems could easily be considered ethical is using CRISPR to edit out genetic abnormalities and thus spare individuals from serious diseases either from birth, like David Sanchez, or later in life. Test the coming baby and, if it's got something like sickle cell disease or albinism, or the predisposition to get cancer later in life, clip out that letter of the individual's DNA.

A lot of smart people, notably women as well as men, are the talking heads in Human Nature's running discussion. This is a large subject, though. The pros and cons of GMO's, of genetic manipulation of plants are barely touched on. There is a gesture toward coral. Unless I missed something, the film doesn't explain what tweaking the genes of coral would do - to save it from extinction in the face of climate change, no doubt. But the larger issue is the pollution of the seas that is wiping coral out. What about the commercial issues? Should genetic modification of human DNA ever by made the purview of private businesses? In the long run the film is best simply at introducing CRISPR and showing that manipulating human DNA is a complex issue.

This is the directing debut of Adam Bolt, who previously worked as an editor on such documentaries as Charles Ferguson's analysis of the 2008 financial meltdown, Inside Job (NYFF 2010).

Human Nature, 95 mins., debuted Mar. 12, 2019 at SXSW (Austin), and went on to show at six other festivals. It had lmited release Mar. 12, 2020.


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