This year’s Nobel awards for medicine highlight the growing possibilities of genetically-enhanced humans. Mario Capecchi, of the University of Utah, Martin Evans, of Cardiff University in Wales, and Oliver Smithies, of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, have shared the US$1.5 million prize for their work in developing knock-out mice.
For non-scientists, the term “knock-out mice” may sound cartoonish, but it is an immensely powerful technology which is being applied to virtually all areas of biomedicine — from basic research to the development of new therapies. Using techniques developed by Capecchi and Smithies, scientists can disable, or knock-out, specific genes. This helps scientists to establish what these genes do.
Martin Evans’s contribution was to use mouse embryonic stem cells to create strains of mice which inherit an altered genome. They have become commonplace in studies of embryonic development, adult physiology, ageing and disease. To date, more than 10,000 mouse genes — about half the genome — have been knocked out. Scientists expect that the whole genome will soon be mapped.
These discoveries are already having an impact upon the study of genetic diseases, such cystic fibrosis, thalassemia, hypertension and atherosclerosis. They also make it possible to consider altering the human genome, although this is only part of the transhumanist utopia at the moment.
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