By Mark Alpert
Have you ever picked up a newspaper and seen a headline that sounded like the premise of a novel? It happened to me two weeks ago. And the headline was eerily similar to the idea for my latest thriller.
On November 26th, Chinese scientist He Jiankui announced the birth of the first genetically modified human babies. The researcher had used a new technique known as CRISPR to alter a gene in a pair of human embryos, which were then implanted in the mother’s womb. The goal of this genetic change was to make the twin girls resistant to H.I.V. infection; their dad is an H.I.V. carrier, and if he’d fathered children in the usual way, he might’ve passed the disease to the mother, who in turn might’ve infected her babies during pregnancy or birth.
The announcement unleashed a storm of criticism from the scientific community. Until this case, genetic researchers around the world had abided by a moratorium on making so-called “germ-line” changes to human DNA that can be passed down through the generations. One good reason for this ban is that scientists are still uncertain about the safety of the CRISPR technique, which alters genes by doing a cut-and-paste job on their DNA code. (CRISPR stands for Clustered Regularly Interspersed Short Palindromic Repeats. It’s a description of the molecular tool that targets the genes to be cut.) In early experiments performed on tissue samples and animals, CRISPR sometimes made unintended “off-target” changes to the wrong genes, which could trigger cancer and other devastating consequences.
But even if CRISPR worked perfectly, scientists would still be uneasy about using the technique to create “designer babies.” There would be strong temptations to tinker with DNA to produce children with enhanced intelligence, better looks, and greater athletic abilities. Over time, this new kind of eugenics could produce a horrific dystopia of genetic have’s and have-not’s, as portrayed in novels such as Brave New World and movies such as Gattaca. For this reason, scientists argued that the only acceptable germ-line change to human DNA would be one that combats a terrible illness that couldn’t be prevented any other way.
By that standard, the genetic changes made by Dr. He Jiankui were completely unwarranted. There’s already a proven method for H.I.V. carriers to father babies without infecting anyone: the semen can be “washed” to separate the sperm from the seminal fluid that contains the virus. Dr. He said he’d received permission for his experiment from a hospital ethics board, but the hospital denied it. He didn’t have permission from his university either; in fact, he’s been on a no-pay leave from the school since February. His cavalier actions have underlined the potential dangers of CRISPR, which is far easier to implement than older genetic-engineering techniques.
But for any reader of thrillers, Dr. He’s behavior is totally familiar. Think of all the novels in which the mad scientist is warned, over and over again, that his or her reckless experiments would lead to disaster. And yet the scientist conducts the experiment anyway, out of greed or hubris or some other perverse motivation.
The idea behind my new novel, THE COMING STORM, isn’t exactly the same as Dr. He’s, but it comes pretty close. CRISPR can also be used to alter the genes of adults. The primary method involves taking advantage of the simplest form of life, the virus, which is just a packet of genetic information enclosed within a membrane. When a virus invades a cell in your body, its genetic material (either DNA or RNA) takes control of the cell’s organelles and uses them to manufacture more viruses, which go on to invade other cells (and trigger an immune response that makes you feel sick). But researchers can design a virus that doesn’t cause illness; instead, it orders the cell to manufacture the molecular targeting and cutting tools needed to alter the cell’s genes. For example, if billions of specially designed CRISPR viruses are injected into the muscles of a patient suffering from muscular dystrophy, they can repair the flawed dystrophin gene inside the patient’s cells, enabling them to produce the crucial proteins that keep muscles healthy. (Experiments show that this technique works for dogs, and it will be tested in humans soon.)
The CRISPR viruses can be injected into the brain too. In THE COMING STORM, the U.S. president suffers from frontotemporal dementia, a degenerative neurological illness. It’s somewhat like Alzheimer’s, but its early symptoms are more behavioral; its victims often have poor impulse control, and their conduct becomes increasingly inappropriate and compulsive. Over time, frontotemporal dementia impairs speech and causes tremors; eventually, swallowing and breathing become difficult, which usually leads to death by pneumonia. There’s no treatment for the illness right now, but it’s been linked to flaws in several genes, which means that the dementia’s deadly progress could be halted by a CRISPR virus designed to repair those flaws.
You see where this is going, right? The president in my novel is suffering so badly from dementia that he starts to worry that his political enemies will record his outbursts and use this evidence to remove him from office (under the provisions of the 25th Amendment). So, in secret, he orders a crash program to develop a CRISPR treatment for his illness. And because the process is so rushed, disaster surely follows. I won’t go into the details; you’ll have to read the book to find out what happens. (St. Martin’s Press will publish THE COMING STORM next month. You can preorder it here.)
I did a lot of reading about genetics before I wrote the novel, and I could see where the CRISPR research was headed. So I wasn’t really surprised to see the news about the genetically modified babies in China. There’s so much potential for the abuse of CRISPR. It was bound to happen.
But I was surprised a few months ago when the New York Times reported that deputy attorney general Rod Rosenstein had mentioned the possibility of recording conversations with President Trump and removing him from office under the 25th Amendment. This news report surfaced more than a year after I imagined it. Rosenstein may have made the comments only in jest, but it was still a weird coincidence.
If you want to give your fiction a realistic feeling, get fully immersed in your subject. If you’re writing a novel about rock & roll, go on the road with your favorite band. If you’re writing a legal thriller, get friendly with the folks at your local courthouse. (I did this in my first newspaper job, when I was a cub reporter in New Hampshire. In addition to sitting through dozens of hearings and trials, I spent many hours in the hallways of the Sullivan County Courthouse, chatting with the judges and attorneys and secretaries.)
Fiction is all about imagination, but the most fascinating stories grow from the rich soil of reality.