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An Inspiration (on July 23, 2024 at 2:08 am) Back

There was a time when the ethics of stem cell research was an issue that garnered great attention.  Proponents of stem cell research pointed to the variety of ailments that showed hope of being treated through stem cells, including spinal injuries, local paralysis, cancer, and even blindness. Stem cell opponents’ main objection to the research is that it would lead to embryo harvesting, tantamount to killing human beings in order to extract useful products from them.

This is quite a dilemma but it turned out to be a non-issue. Despite hopes and fears, evidence shows that embryonic stem cells are irrelevant to treatment ambitions. It is only adult stem cells derived from one’s own body that have the hoped-for potential, as donor cells are routinely rejected; aside from that, techniques have been developed that revert adult cells into stem cells. It was quite a happy coincidence that nature and science lead us down the most ethical road.

The 1997 film “Gattaca,” set sometime in the distant future, shed light on a newer issue within the realm of gene therapy. In the movie, genetic modification is a reality. The promise of genetic therapy creating better humans is weighed against the threat of mistakes; the promise of smarter and more productive people is weighed against those who don’t receive the therapy and left behind.

Approaching 15 years after the filming of this movie, “Gattaca” seems less and less like science fiction and more like a parable describing an important issue of our time.  It is my deepest hope that science and nature will once again sidestep the issue entirely and lead us to the moral solution.

Gene expression is at the forefront of genetic therapies. We’re obviously more worried about a gene being expressed as a tumor than we are if a person’s genetic makeup makes him predisposed to cancer, just as we care more if a person develops malaria than if they are predisposed to malaria. There is a large circular pathway of biochemical processes between DNA and the ultimate expression of genes. Anywhere along that pathway is a suitable target for therapy. Research to find substances that work to change the expression of genes by altering important points along those paths is ongoing.  The most promising substances are completely natural and extracted from plants.

For example, it has been shown recently that high-phenol olive oil (compared to low-phenol olive oil) can control the expression of almost 100 different genes involved in metabolic syndrome, which includes risk of heart disease and diabetes. We’re seeing that higher consumption of olive oil, but more importantly, higher consumption of high-phenol olive oil may be able to lower your risk of diabetes. (Phenolic compounds, by the way, are also found in wine.) The treatment may even work better for someone who is predisposed to heart disease than someone who is not by minimizing the impact the genes that person innately expresses. This natural solution, using our knowledge to modify our habits instead of using our knowledge to modify nature, seems more respectful of the natural world.  We all know that humanity is in a precarious situation when respect of nature is of the upmost importance.

The research continues in earnest as companies gear up to claim the huge market in the road ahead. Extracts from roses and olives, the traditional beauty botanicals in the West have been shown to have favorable effects on the genes that express collagen production. Research is also being done on traditional Chinese herbs, extracting their active biochemicals in completely organic processes to produce fertilizers that can express genes of certain plants, producing ingredients for topical ointments to reduce the appearance of wrinkles and increase the firmness of one’s skin, and producing food and feed additives to improve the immune system of the consumer. Even more uses will be discovered as the gamut of effective Chinese herbs are studied and their active ingredients isolated.

(The author works with a biotech company that works on such projects. The views expressed in this article are solely the author’s and not necessarily those of Olive Ecological Products. This work may be reproduced in full.)

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