Gene therapy turns people into superheroes on TV. Can it do that in real life too?

  • Written by MarketWatch
  • Published in Economics

Jessica Jones bends a metal chair like it’s putty and lifts a refrigerator with the ease of an empty box. She throws a man through a glass door, breaks a lock with her bare hands and interrupts a robbery by throwing a bottle of liquor at the intruder.

One of the few feats that she finds onerous? Lifting an enormous, full trailer off an injured woman.

Jones, the protagonist of her eponymous hit Netflix NFLX, +2.36%[1]  series, is super-strong — her abilities and those of other characters the result of (spoiler alert!) covert, cutting-edge scientific procedures performed by a rogue scientist and his shadowy organization.

Tinkering with the body’s genetic material to make it stronger and healthier sounds like the stuff of television, but it’s also real [2]— and served as the inspiration for “Jessica Jones.”

Gene therapy, that very procedure, is already being used to treat complex [3]diseases[4], with hopes of using it far more widely[5].

Human capabilities could likely be enhanced through gene therapy, possibly attaining even some of the abilities pictured on the show.

But the truth is more complicated than fiction. Where those differences lie tells us how close we are to a science-fiction future.

“Jessica Jones” also raises a decades-long debate that’s reignited with today’s gene therapy renaissance: What can, and should, this transformational science be used for? And what’s stopping it from being abused?

Inspired by CRISPR

In 2016, as the writing staff of “Jessica Jones” sat down to hash out how their protagonist got her super-strength, the genome-editing tool CRISPR was everywhere.

News reports recounted its power, promise in human diseases and inventors. One spread, in Science News magazine[6], cited scientists describing CRISPR as a miracle.

In the Marvel comic books that “Jessica Jones” is based on, the character’s origin story involves exposure to experimental materials.

Related: Tobacco use is shown more on streaming shows than on cable TV[7]

But the Netflix writers wanted to explain Jones’s strength in a different way, and the Science News magazine feature cemented the idea, Jenny Klein, a writer on the show, tells MarketWatch.

Klein, who wrote and co-produced season two of “Jessica Jones,” had also heard about CRISPR, a branch of the burgeoning gene therapy field, from her sister, a scientist who is enthusiastic about how gene therapy might be applied.

CRISPR was “really exciting but still futuristic enough at the time to give us some narrative flexibility, because it wasn’t yet being tested in humans,” Klein says. It also “had a specificity with the targeted enzyme and ability to cut and...

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