TusCon 45 Wrap-Up

My original plan was to give you a revised “thought experiment” this week in which I asked you what one device you would keep if you had to give up everything else, assuming that electrical power was still available. I’m going to hold that for next week, however, in favor of a quick summary of my participation in TusCon 45, the Tucson Science Fiction, Fantasy, and Horror Convention this past weekend. (The organizers are so organized, they’ve already updated their site for next year’s event!)

TusCon is a small and friendly convention (or “con,” in the lingo). While most of the participating authors come from Arizona or adjacent states, the staff has managed to score some big-name authors as the Author Guest of Honor, including George R. R. Martin (who happens to live in New Mexico) a couple years ago.

The con features not only the usual panel discussions and single-author presentations, book signings, and dealer room, but also an art room where all of the art is for sale, a game room for both board and online games, steampunk/Dr. Who/Star Trek/Star Wars “cosplay” (costume events), and a non-stop film festival of everything from horror to anime (an originally Japanese comic book/animated film style). With all that going on, you’d think there’d be a gazillion people, like there are at the various ComiCons around the nation.

You’d be wrong. Attendance is less than 200, and the event never feels crowded, the way ComiCons can.

This was my sixth or seventh year attending TusCon and for the first time, I was invited to be a panelist. I got to participate in panels on whether we (America, presumably) have lost our spirit of exploration, especially as it pertains to space exploration, critique groups, and telling stories from new angles. All good fun. Here’s a picture of my critique group panel.

L-R: Me, John Vornholt, Gemma Lauren Krebs, T. L. Smith

But I gave up my “panel virginity” with my first ever one: “Drake & McTrowell’s Hot Potato School of Writing.” What a way to start! At 10 PM on Friday night, two published authors—myself and David Lee Summers—were each paired up with a volunteer audience member. My partner was Jocelynne Simone, a.k.a. “Madam Askew” (pronounced a-SKEW), local steampunk celebrity and “tea aficionada.”

The ever-glamorous Madam Askew

“Dr. Sparky McTrowell” and “Chief Inspector Erasmus McTrowell” (their steampunk names, in case you hadn’t guessed) then inflicted upon the two teams—I MEAN, challenged us with—three plot points, selected by the audience from a list of twenty provided by our persecutors—I MEAN, our moderators. The first ones were:

  • Crazed herpetologists are breeding incendiary salamanders.
  • Pandemic chocolate craving.
  • Mud was everywhere!

Our task was then to improvise—out loud, and in real time—a story using these prompts, plus two “hot potatoes” that would be thrown at us during the event. David and his partner took the first one, and had two minutes to tell the first part of the story. (To be clear, there was no preparation time: they had to jump right into it.)

At the end of their two minutes, Madam Askew and I had to pick the story up, add the second plot point and the “hot potato” submitted by the audience and selected by Drake and McTrowell (“a love triangle develops”), and improvise the continuation of the story for two minutes.

Finally, David and his partner had to take the last plot point plus one more “hot potato,” (“Suddenly a DeLorean appeared, out of which stepped their love-child”), and complete the tale in another two minutes of madcap improvisation.

Whew!

Then the partners were replaced and we did it all again. This time the prompts were:

  • Plot point 1: “They’ll never make fun of me again,” he exclaimed as he downed the entire vial of glowing green liquid.
  • Plot point 2: A mechanical squid plays the bagpipes beautifully.
  • Hot potato 1: The Tower of London makes a perfect nesting place.
  • Plot point 3: To make the task at hand easier, the Peregrine [a steampunk airship] is outfitted with a pumpkin launcher.
  • Hot potato 2: The giant snapping turtle crawled out of its tank with a menacing snap of its jaws.

This time my new partner David and I got to start and finish.

Do not adjust your eyes. The picture IS blurry.

Needless to say, much craziness and creativity were involved but not, surprisingly, adult beverages.

Madam Askew’s outfits are always quite dramatic, she puts a lot of effort into them. Here’s one more photo of her, David Lee, and an unidentified interloper that will give you a better idea. She wore a different one every day.

Madam Askew, David Lee Summers (right), and an unidentified interloper

The con wrapped up on Sunday afternoon, by which time I was ready to head home, but it was a grand time and I’m already signed up for next year.

Give It Up, Part 2

Last time I asked, “If you had to get rid of one piece of the technological stuff you use every day, what would it be?” This time the question is reversed and A LOT harder: you can only keep one thing.

This is a really sneaky and difficult question because technology, writ large, is so deeply embedded in our lives. Consider all of the things that are powered by electricity. The electrical grid that brings power to our homes is so critical that if you want to keep one electrically powered device, you have to either also keep the grid or replace it with some other technology that would generate electricity—and that violates the “rules” of this question.

So that means everything powered by electricity has to go: not just computers and smart phones, but refrigerators, washers and dryers, televisions, radios, light bulbs, heating and air conditioning systems (even those that use electricity only to light a pilot light or control a thermostat), any vehicle that uses electrical power in any way, battery-powered anything…. Yikes!

Photo by Sergey Khakimullin via Dreamstime.com

By the way, that means no water service, either, since the pumps are electrically powered. Even “doomsday preppers” might forget this: how are they going to get their water after any supplies they’ve laid in run out? A well? It better be hand-pumped. So, no water unless you’ve already got a hand-pumped well.

But how was that well dug? How were the pipes and pump made? No pump, just a bucket at the end of a rope? Fine. Again, what tools were used to dig the well? How were they made? Same for the bucket: the handle, the staves, any bands to hold the sides together. And the rope. Where did the fibers come from? How were they harvested, cut, and formed into the rope? With metal tools? Metal forging is a technology. Since you can’t use any of these things, you’d better live near a body of fresh water… and hope you can survive the bacteria living in it. Double yikes!

This is why people worry so much about a cyber attack taking down a national power grid. If the damage is bad enough and wide-spread enough, it becomes a threat not only to the existence of the nation but of the people living there. Even the loss of a regional power grid for more than a few days would be catastrophic. Take away the power people use for almost everything, especially water distribution, and things get really bad really fast.

For the sake of this blog post, how far do we take this definition of “technology?” Are stone tools “technology?” Sharpened sticks? Controlled fire? If yes, triple yikes!

If that’s the case, I’d keep control of fire. I can do things with fire.

Taken to its logical extreme of NO technology of ANY kind except for one thing, suddenly the options become very limited. Primitive in a major way. Pre-stone-age. It’s a scary thought.

Maybe next time I’ll back this off a little, let us keep electricity.

What do you think? Could you manage if EVERY kind of technology in your life suddenly went away, except for one thing?

Fortunately, the technology of the comment box is still working (so far as I know).

Give It Up, Part 1

Last time I asked what your least favorite piece of technology is. That’s a nice but sneakily misleading segue into this week’s topic. Here’s the question: If you had to give up one piece of technology, and you could choose which one, what would it be?

Actually, let me make that question a bit harder. If you had to give up one piece of technology that played an important role in your everyday life, and you had to choose which one, what would it be?

Woman talking on pay phone
Image courtesy of Sira Anamwong / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

See the difference? It’s easy to give up, say, the battery-powered drill you only use once in a while, so that doesn’t count. About a year ago, I gave up the anti-lock braking system (ABS) on my car. The hydraulic actuator failed and my mechanic told me it was going to cost $3,500, parts and labor, to replace it. I’m not sure the car’s worth that much, and I’ve never actually had to use the ABS system, except at a couple of safety schools, so that was a pretty easy decision. And it doesn’t count, either.

But what about something you use and need—or think you need—every day? That’s a different animal. Would you give up your smart phone, and have to go back to using a landline, and a separate camera, and a Day-Timer®, etc.? Do you hate being tied to that electronic leash, yet find it indispensable now?

What about your broadband internet? Can you even imagine going back to dial-up? “File download will be complete in 3 days, 16 hours, 27 minutes.” Scary, huh? Well, today is Halloween.

How about your cable or satellite TV? We typically use only 10 or fewer channels of those 150 in the package anyway, and besides, there’s nothing on that’s worth watching. No more 4K Ultra-High Definition picture? Who’d even heard of that 10 years ago?

What about your computer? I mean all forms of them—laptop, desktop, tablet, phone—not just replacing a desktop with a laptop or tablet. No more e-mail, no more Facebook, no more blogs (Whoa! Wait a minute!), no more annoying banner ads, no more spam except the kind that comes in a can. Hmmm. That’s actually about 37 dozen technologies, though, so maybe it doesn’t count.

Sure, this is an arbitrary and artificial question, but I hope it’ll provoke a little thought. And it’s a great lead-in to next week’s post.

What would I give up? Probably the microwave oven. The things I use it for most—defrosting and/or reheating foods I’ve frozen—I could do other ways. I rarely cook in it, and I’ve got a cooktop and oven that could take its place. They’re just slower. I use the nuker just about every day but in truth it’s a convenience item. I could give it up.

What about you? Will you give up the technology of the comment box, or use it?

What Is Your LEAST Favorite Technology?

Last time I wrote about all the technology that is part of our lives and how we’ve come not only to rely on so much of it, but to get pleasure out of some of it. But while there are some things we enjoy or at least appreciate having, there are others….

Love/Hate Relationship

I think it’s fair to say that there are at least some pieces of technology in our lives that we have a love/hate relationship with, or love/appreciate having it around when we or others can use it for our benefit, but hate it when we or others use it in ways we don’t like, or it behaves in unpredictable or even hostile ways.

Hit Any Key to ContinueA family friend used to call his computer his “disputer.” We can all relate to that. Remember this screen-saver image? (At least I’m not inflicting you with the animated one that never stops running!)

Many of us appreciate having a radio/sound system in our cars, particularly on long, boring road trips, but we’re not so appreciative when the teenager in the car next to ours has the volume on their system turned up so loud that the bass rattles both all the loose pieces on their car and our teeth too. Not that we ever did anything similar when we were that age.

Cell phones. Enough said.

But telephones generally: they’re great for staying connected with family and friends near or far, but not so great when the 27th telemarketer or robocaller of the day calls at dinnertime.

Embedded and Unavoidable

Last time I noted how deeply embedded technology is in our lives. While we tend to think of “technology” as electronic things, perhaps, it goes far deeper than that. That’ll be part of a topic for a later post, but that embedding is what can make technology so annoying: we can’t get away from it. Or if we can, it’s not easy to learn how to do.

Here’s an example. This morning I was reading an online article from the Washington Post’s web site. If you do this any at all, no matter what the news source, there are almost always ads on the site. (I can think of only one commercial site, Ars Technica, that is intentionally ad-free.) Yes, I have an ad-blocking app on my web browser, but many sites, when they detect that it’s working (yes, they can do that), whine about it and threaten to cut off my access if I don’t turn it off.

Maybe you’ve noticed that tiny blue triangle in the upper-right corner of these ads. If you click on it, you may be given the option from a company like Google to control which ads you’re shown. When I clicked it this morning, Google showed me all the categories they think, from tracking my web browsing (yes, they do that to all of us), I’d want to see ads about. There must have been over 60 categories. I have no idea how they associated some of them, like “Reality TV,” with me. Even after clicking off 27 of these categories (they counted them), there were easily that many left.

Now, I have no problem with web site owners trying to make some money off of their sites. They have to at least cover their costs of creating, maintaining, and putting “content” up on the site. That’s called “monetizing,” and I get it. Print newspapers and magazines are full of ads, after all, and we’re so accustomed to them we don’t really see them. While I don’t run ads on this site, I do have expenses and costs for having it: hosting fees and the time it takes me to write posts like this and to keep the site up to date, to name just a few.

What I DON’T like are a site’s blinking, flashing, attention-sucking ads that try to pull me away from the content I came to the site to see.

Least Favorite Things

But the ads are not my least favorite technological thing. It’s the tracking technology behind them, even though there are cases where I, in my own book marketing efforts, can benefit from it. There’s no way to be anonymous online; hasn’t been for a very long time. But there are so many ways in which the privacy we’d like to have is being eroded, even when we might benefit from that sacrifice. The sacrifice is not truly voluntary. (Have you ever actually read Google’s or Facebook’s “terms of use?” Yeah, me neither, and they know that we don’t.) And while they’ve provided ways to “control” some of that, who makes the time, or has the computer savvy, to find those controls?

So what’s your least favorite bit of technology? The technology of the comment box stands ready to accept your answer, and the technologies of the web site and e-mail will happily let me know that you’ve written something.

These Are a Few of My Favorite Things

Last time I started what will be a series on technology in our lives. I set the stage by equating so much of the technology we use without understanding how it works, and not being much worried about that in most cases, to magic.

So all right, we have these pieces of everyday magic all around us. Which ones are your favorites? When you think about it, there are so many to choose from. Here’s a list that isn’t even close to complete.

  • Desktop computers

    © Jossdim | Stock Free Images
  • Laptop computers
  • Tablet computers
  • Productivity programs for any of these (word processing, accounting, etc.)
  • Ordinary cell phones
  • Smartphones
  • Cable TV
  • Satellite TV
  • The internet generally
  • Other TV-like services (Hulu, Roku, etc.)
  • Digital video recorders
  • GoPro cameras
  • Video games and game consoles
  • Music streaming services
  • Video streaming services (Netflix, etc.)
  • Social media
  • Driving navigation aids/apps
  • Traffic advisory aids/apps
  • Safe-driving aids (lane-keeping, head-up displays, etc.)
  • Weather apps
  • Other smartphone apps
  • Microwave ovens
  • Other programmable kitchen appliances
  • Programmable thermostats/HVAC systems
  • Cell phone enabled home security systems (the Ring video doorbell)
  • Baby monitors
  • Pacemakers

…and the list goes on.

It’s pretty astonishing how much technology there is in our lives. This list is mostly just things that are in our homes and pockets. I haven’t even touched the kinds of things in the outside world, from power distribution systems to air traffic control to hospital and other medical technologies like CT scans to traffic light control systems to robots in manufacturing plants to… well, you get the idea.

When/if we stop to think about it—which we rarely do, technology being so deeply embedded in our lives—it’s enough to make our heads spin.

Favorites

OK, so what’s your favorite piece of technology? Not which one makes you most productive, necessarily, or safer, or healthier. What gives you the most pleasure or satisfaction? Do any? Maybe none do.

That’s kind of where I am. I’ve been around long enough to have a reference point for how much things have changed over the decades. Long-distance phone calls used to be something special and expensive. Not anymore. That’s cool, but not, in and of itself, something that gives me pleasure. Same for other ways of communicating long distance, like Skype and the other video-conferencing systems I’ve used.

I don’t listen to music much, or watch movies, so streaming services don’t do anything for me. Sure, it’s nice to watch my favorite sports teams on TV (or on my computer or phone, if I used those services), no matter where they’re playing, but that’s not important to me.

My programmable coffee maker has a timer, so I could load it the night before and it would have coffee ready for me when I stumbled into the kitchen in the morning. That would be pleasant. Do I use it? No.

I could go on, but there’s not much point. About the only device I can think of that I’ve gotten pleasure out of is my (24 year old) car, but mostly when I’ve gone to performance driving events. Even though it’s that old, it’s got embedded technologies in it: power-assisted steering and computer-assisted braking, a computer-controlled engine, etc., but it’s the yee-hawing around the track or autocross course that’s fun, and any car could provide some degree of that.

Otherwise, all the technology around me just is. It helps me do things faster and better—sometimes, anyway.

But back to you. Are you like me, using but not getting any special pleasure out of the devices and technologies around you? Or is there something that gives you a special kind of joy?

In later posts, I’ll talk about our least favorite things, and the things we could give up, or things that we wouldn’t. Meanwhile, the comment box below is waiting to you to use it. And maybe even enjoy doing so.

 

It’s a Magical World

I’ll let you in on a little secret. I’m writing this post on a computer. No, that’s not the secret. The secret is, I really have no idea how it does what it does. I know that when I press a key on my keyboard, a letter appears on the screen. And it’s always the right letter, unless I pressed the wrong key.

Image by Monkey Business Images. Used by permission. (That’s not me, by the way.)

I roll the trackball around with my thumb and the pointer zips across the screen. I know there are sensors that detect the reflections of the laser lights shining on the trackball to reveal its movement, and somehow, what they detect gets translated into commands to move the pointer. But how?

My smartphone takes still and video pictures, helps me keep track of my expenses, tells me the time and the outside temperature wherever I happen to be, sends and receives e-mail, plays music and video. It even makes phone calls! OK, I know the phone is actually a two-way radio that (sometimes ) exchanges signals with antennas on a tower a few miles away, and those signals get turned into a phone call, or internet messages, or e-mails, or whatever. But how?

I know that the klystron tube in my microwave oven sends radio waves with micron (millionths of a meter) wavelengths into my food, where the water molecules absorb them, get all excited, and heat up the food. But how does it do that?

My car has an electronic ignition, electronic fuel injection, and several computers in it. I pretty much understand the basics of how an internal combustion engine works, but when mine stops working, can I fix it? HA. I’m mechanically reclined, not inclined.

I have an 8-day cuckoo clock. Doesn’t have a bit of electronics in it, it’s all mechanical. Do I know how it works, how the chimes and music box “know” when to chime or play? Not really.

We’re all like this, right? We’re surrounded by machinery big and small that we use every day, yet in many cases we have not the foggiest idea how it really works. Oh, sure, we can operate it, we know how to push the right buttons or turn the right knobs in the right order to (usually) get it to do what it’s supposed to do. But do we know how it does what it does?

No Luddites Allowed

People “of a certain age” hearken back to “the good old days” when they understood how machinery worked. I have friends who pine for the day when they could fix the cars they drove. Or they could fix a toaster that went on the fritz. Or they wish they could go back to a typewriter. But did they know how that toaster toasted or that typewriter smacked bits of type against the ribbon?

Since the dawn of the mechanical age, we’ve used things that worked but we didn’t know how they worked. I can argue that most of the folks who walked behind a plow being pulled by a couple of sturdy horses didn’t actually know how the blade split the earth. They just knew that it did, and that was good enough.

Need to Know

Truth is, we don’t need to know how something works most of the time.  We don’t need to know how the computer does its magic, or the microwave, or the phone, or the car, or even the cuckoo clock. We learn how to make it work the way we want it to—most of the time, anyway—how to operate it, in other words, and get on with our lives.

Arthur C. Clarke once said, “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” To those who didn’t grow up with it, anyway.

There’s “magic” all around us every day and we don’t think a thing of it. We press a button, touch a screen, flip a switch, turn a knob, move a lever, and something happens. Most of the time it’s what we wanted and expected, and we’re happy.

It’s a magical world.

If Genetic Engineering Could Cure Your Child, Would You Use It?

Last time, I wrote about how gene therapy is being used to fix certain kinds of errors in DNA, and so cure or significantly reduce certain kinds of cancers. I asked whether you would accept such a treatment for yourself.

It’s one thing to accept the risks that are associated with these still new and experimental treatments, but would you make that decision for a sick child—one of your children?

Little boy in hospital
© Suthisa Kaewkajang | Dreamstime.com

Current Treatments

I didn’t make a point of it last time, but two of the diseases for which this kind of gene therapy is now available, B-cell acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL) and junctional epidermolysis bullosa (“butterfly skin”), are both childhood diseases. The children who received these treatments either were not responding to existing treatments anymore or there were no other treatments available. These kids’ parents were left with the choice of trying these experimental approaches or watching their children die. I think most parents wouldn’t consider that much of a choice.

The FDA has also approved a gene therapy for adults with non-Hodgkin lymphoma, another kind of cancer.

But what if the situation was not so dire? Doctors know, for example, that sickle cell disease is caused by a “single nucleotide polymorphism,” in plain English, an error in just one amino acid in one gene in a person’s DNA. The sickle cell mutation, which has to be inherited from both parents, is not usually fatal in children, although it can shorten the lifespan of someone who suffers from the disease. It’s treatable, but until now has only been curable by a bone marrow or blood stem cell transplant. Gene therapy might be able to change that. In fact, CNN has reported a complete cure in a very ill teenager in France.

Pre-Natal Therapy

But now things get more complicated. What if the therapy could be applied to a child before they were born? Pre-natal screenings can identify certain kinds of illnesses and conditions in the developing fetus. And there are some surgical procedures that are done in the uterus.

Could a gene therapy treatment even be done in this situation? Some current therapies use the subject’s own immune cells, tweaking them to recognize and attack cancerous cells, for example. However, a baby’s immune system is not fully developed at birth, so it seems like this kind of approach would be limited to certain diseases or conditions where the right kinds of cells were available enough and mature enough to be used.

Other gene therapies use special viruses to deliver their genetic payloads. Scientists have a pretty good idea how post-natal bodies, especially adult ones, respond to these viruses, but I wonder if anyone has much of an idea about how a fetus would react. And how would one ethically test such a therapy, or even how the fetus and the mother would react to the presence of the virus?

Post-Conception Therapy

For couples using in vitro fertilization, the egg and sperm cells, before fertilization, and the earliest forms of the fetus, such as the blastocyst, are available outside the mother’s body. It’s possible to test the genes of the blastocyst before implantation.

In the US and other Western countries, doctors agree that creating “designer babies,” that is, babies whose genes are modified to produce certain desired characteristics, is unethical.

But a designer baby is very different from one whose parents’ genes have destined that child for some kind of serious disease or condition before or after birth. Scientists in China and the UK have demonstrated that they can make genetic changes at this stage of development, but none of the fetuses so modified allowed to continue to develop beyond a very early stage, where they still look like just a ball of cells.

Big Decisions for Parents

In the future parents will face some big decisions if a genetic test reveals a fixable abnormality, beyond the decision of whether to abort the pregnancy or not. Every choice will entail risks and doctors may not be able to say exactly how much risk each option holds.

Good parents want to do what’s best for their children. What will they decide? How will they decide? What social pressures will they face to either agree to the treatment or refuse it?

If you’re a parent, or want to be someday, what would you do? Please leave your thoughts in the comments box below.

If Gene Therapy Could Save Your Life, Would You Take It?

 

Late last year, Science News magazine published an article about how scientists used genetic modification to save the life of a young boy. He had a skin condition in which the upper layer of his skin would blister and separate from the layers underneath if he was just touched or rubbed gently. Children with this condition are called “butterfly children” because their skin “is as fragile as butterfly wings.” At the time of his treatment, the boy had lost 80% of his skin and was close to death.

Replacing a gene
Photo by Andrianocz, via Dreamstime.com

People with this condition have a mutation in one of three genes. The doctors identified which one was the problem for this child, took a section of good skin, and used a retrovirus to insert good copies of the bad gene into the skin cells. (No, retroviruses don’t wear leisure suits and enjoy disco music. They’re not that kind of “retro.”) The scientists grew patches of skin containing stem cells and other kinds of cells in the lab and transplanted them onto the boy. Over time, that treated skin grew to cover the rest of his body, and today he’s in school, playing soccer, and leading an apparently normal life.

Personalized Medicine

This is just one example of a growing field called personalized medicine, in which doctors use cells from a patient’s own body in some way to treat a disease. This approach is gaining wider and wider use in cancer therapies, for example, where doctors modify the patient’s own disease-fighting cells. The modified cells once again recognize cancer cells and attack and kill them. Usually this involves changing the immune cells’ genes in some targeted way so that they will either ignore the signals the tumor uses to hide from the immune system, or to recognize some protein on a cancer cell’s surface that is unique to that kind of cell.

An example of this uses specially modified T cells, part of the immune system, to target specific cancer cells, including a kind of lymph cancer and a form of childhood leukemia. These “chimeric antigen receptor T cell,” or CAR-T cell, therapies currently have some pretty severe, but usually controllable, side effects, like very low blood pressure and very high heart rates, but they also cure the cancers they’re targeted against.

In 2013, the husband of a friend of mine was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, the same kind that recently killed Aretha Franklin. Dennis’ treatment included being injected with specially modified mouse cells that were meant to make his immune system react to his cancer. While this is not the same kind of treatment I just mentioned, the mouse cells had to be genetically modified in some way so Dennis’ immune system wouldn’t attack them. While the doctors determined that this experimental treatment probably did not help him, his other treatments did, and five years later he’s cancer free.

Side-Effects and Other Concerns

Side-effects, like those I mentioned above, are always a concern, and research scientists do want to minimize them. Of course, chemotherapy and radiation have pretty severe side effects too, but given the choice between feeling lousy for a while after each round of treatment and dying, most patients choose to feel lousy until the treatment either works or it’s clear that it won’t. The same appears to be true when it comes to these gene-mod treatments.

It’s interesting to me that there’s been little push-back against these kinds of treatments, which involve modifying a cell’s genes, as compared to the other kinds of genetic modifications scientists are experimenting with. See my previous post for some examples of this. Maybe it’s because there’s a perception that these kinds of treatments are isolated to one individual, whereas the others release gene-modded animals into the wild. The former case assumes a degree of control over the modified cells that may or may not exist.

What Would You Do?

So if you had a disease that could be cured, or at least treated, by some kind of gene therapy, would you take it? I’m pretty sure I would, especially if the cells that were going to be modified were my own.

Please leave your thoughts in the comments box below.

 

Would You Accept a Pig-Grown Human Organ Transplant?

In Kazuo Ishiguro’s heart-breaking novel Never Let Me Go, human clones are raised so their organs can be harvested for transplantation when the clones are teenagers. The novel is set in a dystopian alternate-history version of 1990s Great Britain. Fast-forward twenty years, however, and a different scenario is edging closer to reality: human-compatible organs grown in pigs.

Human kidney
Photo by Luuuusa via Dreamstime.com

A recent Science News article reported that Americans generally support genetically engineering animals in ways that would aid human health. The article is based on a Pew Research Center study done in April and May of this year. (Pew is a highly-respected opinion research organization that conducts surveys on a wide range of topics.)

The study asked “a nationally representative sample of 2,537 U.S. adults” how acceptable five different kinds of genetic engineering in animals would be. The list included preventing mosquitos from spreading diseases by limiting their ability to reproduce, using animals to grow organs for human transplantation, and making aquarium fish glow. Some of these genetic modifications have already been made in laboratories, while others are still being studied.

The researchers also asked the respondents about how much or little they felt they knew about science, how religious they were or were not, and, if they objected to any of these applications, why they did. The study report quotes representative answers.

The Results

The responses, as you’d expect, varied widely. Overall, men were more supportive of each of these technologies than women, the more scientifically literate were more supportive than those who were less, the less religious were more supportive than the more religious, and whites were more supportive than non-whites.

Support varied between the technologies too. Limiting mosquito reproduction to block the spread of diseases like Zika, dengue, and others got the most support, 70% overall. Animal-grown human organs came in second at 57%. Only these two got overall majority support. Glow-in-the-dark aquarium fish got the least support, only 21%.

Pig-grown Parts?

The reasons scientists have focused on pigs include that the animals are the right size to grow human-sized organs, they’ve been well studied for many years, and they don’t take very long to grow to a size and maturity that the organ(s) could be harvested. Scientists’ goals are to genetically modify the pig embryos so the organs would be either fully human or compatible enough that the risks associated with transplantation would be similar to those from human-to-human transplants. Animal-grown organs could also, in theory, relieve today’s ongoing shortage of human donors for many organs.

Of the 293 survey respondents who opposed this technology, their reasons included suffering by or harm to the animals (21% of those 293), that it was against God or nature (18%), and that it could have negative effects on human health (16%), among others.

What Would You Do?

If you needed a new kidney, liver, or heart, say, and you could receive one that had been grown in a pig, what would you do? Should this research even continue?

I’m don’t know what I might do. There are still many technical and ethical issues to be fully addressed, and not everyone will be satisfied with the answers scientists, ethicists, and others settle on. We should remember, too, that scientists in other countries might come to different conclusions, depending on their cultural values. Could that lead to a “transplantation tourism” industry, where people from countries that prohibit or restrict such transplants would travel to countries where it was legal or easier to get? It’s good to be having these discussions now, however, and they are under way.

So what do you think you would do? Please put your thoughts in the reply box below.

 

Open Mic Night!

On Friday, August 17th, I had the privilege of being the “spotlight author” at the monthly Open Mic Night at Broxton’s Coffee in Sierra Vista, AZ, sponsored by the Cochise Community Creative Writing Celebration. During my time in the spotlight, I talked about how my books, The Eternity Plague and Chrysalis, came to be, read the full opening scene from The Eternity Plague and a condensed version of the opening scene from Chrysalis, and then answered questions from the audience. The first half-hour or so of the event (all of my portion) was broadcast on Facebook Live too.

If you’d like to watch the video, you have three choices. The shortest version contains only my part of the event. It runs just over 21 minutes.

The medium length version includes organizer Beth Orozco’s opening comments. It runs a bit over 26 minutes.

The full-length version also includes coffee shop owner George Broxton’s comments at the beginning. It runs 29 and 1/2 minutes. This version is also available on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/RossBLampert.author/videos/481383622327870.