Saturday, 31 October 2015

Ground Zero

Christchurch February 2011

I've just returned from a scientific conference in Christchurch (NZ). It has been at least 10 years since I last visited this delightful city. Things have changed a bit since then. In February 2011, a massive earthquake hit Christchurch resulting in total devastation of the central city with the loss of 185 lives. At the time, the incumbent government promised a total rebuild within 5 years...... Of course, this hasn't happened. To be fair, finding 40 billion dollars was never going to be easy with a population of 4.5 million souls. It would have been more honest if they had stated that the rebuild would take decades- but it was election year.

Driving in by taxi from the airport: On the edge of the city everything appeared pristine, but the closer we approached ground zero the greater the frequency of houses undergoing renovation and work. However, nothing could prepare me for the city centre. Great swathes of the central city had disappeared and replaced by seemingly never ending car parks. Large numbers of buildings awaited to be demolished; rebuilding seemed almost non-existent. The whole area was, eerily, people free. But good old Kiwi ingenuity has intervened and modified shipping containers have appeared along the streets and fashioned into shops. Shame that there was no one about to take advantage of this unique shopping experience.

I like attending conferences. I get to meet old friends and colleagues and we usually indulge in a lively conference dinner. If you think scientists are a lot of fusty, head in the clouds, and tedious wankers, you need to think anew; I've got the photos (and scars) to prove otherwise. The science is pretty important also. I'm privileged/cursed to belong to a profession in flux. Things are changing rapidly and the technology underpinning genetic knowledge advances at an increasingly, dizzying pace. The content, as usual, was great (especially my oral paper) and so I thought I'd share some of the scary highlights.

Salvage kids coming to a neonatal unit near you 
I wrote a few weeks ago about non-invasive prenatal diagnosis and how chromosome abnormalities in the foetus can now be diagnosed by a simple maternal blood test. Pre-implantation diagnosis has been around for a while and involves fertilising the egg in a 'test tube'. Cells from the developing embryo can be removed and tested for genetic disorders. This technique is very useful where the parents carry a genetic condition and where conventional prenatal genetic testing is not an option for whatever reason. If the embryo proves positive for the disorder it can be discarded (ultimate consumer society). Multiple embryos are tested and those testing negative can be introduced into the mother's womb and the pregnancy can continue as normal. Nothing very controversial about the technique or the ethics involved, or at least the debate has fizzled out and a rough consensus has been reached, but not in this world. But what about the situation where a couple has an existing child with a genetic disease and would like a second child, not only disease free, but also a genetic match to provide a curative stem cell transplant for the ailing sibling?  This is not a hypothetical scenario. There are couples willing to discard  embryos, although free of genetic disease, but do not have the required genetic profile compatible with the diseased child. The ethical issues are legion and were vigorously debated at the meeting. Of course, I don't have space to consider the fascinating and complex issues raised.....       

Design me a baby: here is da list
If you consider the previous discussion (no discussion, tis a fucking Flaxen monologue) slightly gnarly, keep tuned, 'cause it's gonna get worse and never better. Clever geneticists can now manipulate embryos in the 'test tube' and remove genes or add genes at will. I think I mentioned the designer baby angle in my previous post, but the implications of this new technology are far reaching. We are now at the stage where we can design a babies' traits according to the whim of the parents. And when I say parents, I mean the wretched rich and not the wretched poor; there is a difference not always measured by wealth. There be ethics committees and everyone knows that committees in the enlightened West work for the greater good. Not all countries have committees but seem to achieve science and results, nonetheless. China does well on science but not so great on the 'hand-wringing' aspect. Thus, if you have a hundred thousand dollars and want a six-foot blond(e) haired, blue eyed child, look East.  Alas, some of us can achieve it naturally. Recipes are diverse but in the end what people really want is conformity to an unnatural norm. Don't shoot the geneticist, biology makes us this way and it makes us bad, given the right financial incentive. In the end the folk, who can, will get exactly what they want because they can and because they have always had that privilege; dicephalic monsters come with a price- if that is what you want.

 I just heard that Chinese scientists can produce a 'micro-pig' by knocking out a growth factor gene. The result is a cute tiny pig. Tis going to be the next big thing on the pet market. Frankly, I don't trust those incurable Chinese; call me Occidental. Pigs make great pets because they are very smart; smarter than hounds, perhaps. Also, small pigs are easier to get on the BBQ. I suspect the Chinese will appreciate this last attribute more than those in the silly decadent West. Angel of Death, take me now.

Unfortunately, due to the conference programme I didn't get much time to see the city. What I did see made me sad. I came across a simple memorial to the fallen. It consisted of 185 plastic chairs laid in rows on a wasteland. Symbolism rarely imposes on this simple soul, but frankly I was moved by this sparse, poignant monument. The wind was blowing from the south which dislodged a contact lens thus provoking a single tear. Luckily, for me, no one noticed.

Caption not necessary



  1. ".......but in the end what people really want is conformity to an unnatural norm........"

    Ain't that the truth. And 'unnatural norms' change faster than you can say, "High Fashion Magazine"
    Who choose the 'unnatural norms' for any given socio-cultural construct? It can be argued that Hugh Hefner defined beauty for an entire culture. Some things remain relatively unchanged for many decades. But, in a 'change-for-change-sake' consumerist world, designing your child to suit current fashion will be dangerous. Unfortunately, it takes 20 to 30 years for your designer child to be 'completed' I hope the fashion for which the child was designed is not too passé. Those children 'designed' in the 80s now have big hair and squared shoulders.

    "......In the end the folk, who can, will get exactly what they want because they can and because they have always had that privilege;........"

    And there is nowt wrong with that, unless you're a Commie.

    Regarding your predictions for the pet market, I'm not so sure. If I am not mistaken, the existing Vietnamese Miniature Potbelly pig has been banned as a pet in many jurisdictions here in the North America. I don't know what the laws are in Uerope or Asia or Africa or Downunder.

  2. As you know, I was there a while back too. Those chairs are a poignant statement reminding us of all the people who died.

    I was also struck by the state of the Cathedral, the rain causing further havoc while the inside is open to the elements and politicians can't make their bloody minds up what to do with it.

    Glad to see those giraffes are now gone tho'

  3. And I forgot to mention the 'cardboard cathedral'

  4. Aye, you could design for physical perfection. You may even 'succeed' in obtaining the physique of the finest gods. Obviously, not the ones with tentacles or big teeth...Sadly, what will reside between it's ears is open to conjecture. I know with animals, the more pure bred they are, the more unstable they are, some breeds are borderline dangerously mad.