Jo Cameron

Not even bad! This woman perceives no pain, no fear, no sorrow. Will she be the genetic model for a future modified human?

No doubt that this peaceful Scottish woman, retired from teaching, never imagined for a moment that all the media spotlights would one day be focused on her, and that she could become part of human history. Yet this is what is happening now that British doctors have discovered the extraordinary particularity of Jo Cameron. She benefits from a genetic mutation that prevents her from feeling any physical or psychological pain. She perceives nothing when she burns or hurts herself, nothing when she undergoes surgery; she is always cheerful, feeling none of the existential evils that her fellow human beings can suffer: no anxiety, no fear, no depression. Thanks to CRISPR, will Jo Cameron's exceptional particularity be used as a starting point for the genetic modification of the poor sensitive humans that we are?
Ahe doctors didn't come back from that. Their patient, this cheerful Scottish woman in her seventies, has just had hand surgery and is feeling no pain. Logically she should be in agony. She had a trapezoctomy to remove a small bone from her wrist, then the surgeons reconstructed her ligaments and realigned her muscles and tendons. Heavy stuff. But on a pain scale of 0 to 10, she tells the flabbergasted surgeon that she's at 0.

Zero pain

It's nothing new for Jo Cameron: when she burns herself, it's the smell of roasted flesh that alerts her. A few years ago, she underwent a major hip operation; doctors prescribed painkillers and morphine. They were perfectly useless because she was not in pain. She told the journalists who have been crowding around them since her case has been known, that her deliveries have always been painless, that she has had many accidents, sores, cuts, wounds, but that she doesn't notice them. All the more so since she has the characteristic of healing and healing at full speed. One day a van blocked the road of her car, she found herself overturned in a ditch with multiple contusions. The first thing she did as she pulled herself, bleeding, from her vehicle was to rush to comfort the van driver, terrified of causing the accident. A real Marvel heroine.
What's more, Jo Cameron is never anxious, anxious, a little depressed like we all get at some point. She is unaware of the existential ills affecting hundreds of millions of people around the world who are trying to cure themselves with opioids and chemical molecules. Our Scottish miracle girl has never taken painkillers or antidepressants because she simply does not need them. She says she's very happy and has an unshakeable optimism. She has been tested by doctors. Her score is 0 out of 21 on the Generalized Anxiety Disorder Scale (GAD-7) and when you look for signs of depression, she scores 0 on the Patient Health Questionnaire-9 (HQP-9) which has 29 levels.
Jo Cameron is not only peaceful and serene, she knows no fear. She says she never gives in to panic, even in dangerous or frightening situations.

Searching for the lost gene

All of these facts have put his doctors on the spot. They decided to do a series of tests to understand what was going on in his genetic code. It was the specialists in pain genetics at Oxford University and University College London who took up this strange case. On March 29, they published the results of their investigations in an article in the British Journal of Anaesthesia.
Jo Cameron's case can be explained by a genetic mutation of two genes: FAAH and FAAH-OUT. Such a genetic transformation had never been observed in a human being before. The first FAAH gene acts on parts of the nervous system that regulate pain and mood. This gene belongs to the so-called endocannabinoid system and produces effects comparable to cannabis derivatives by abolishing pain sensitivity and reducing anxiety. Marc Gozlan, the doctor who holds a blog reputedly published by Le Monde, helps us understand the biochemical mechanism that is taking place.
He explains that neurons and other nerve cells in the brain have receptors on their surface. One of these receptors is anandamide (AEA), a lipid that plays a crucial role in the perception of pain. This lipid has the role of reducing pain and providing a state of almost ecstatic bliss. The problem is that the FAAH gene produces an enzyme that breaks down the anandamide; that's why we have pain. But at Jo Cameron, doctors discovered large amounts of anandamide in her blood. This means that this lipid, in her case, is not broken down. Our Scottish girl's blood contains, more than anyone else's, the molecules of bliss. Why does Jo Cameron benefit from this specificity? Geneticists have discovered that her FAAH gene is not like ours. He had mutated and lost a single letter of his genetic code - scientists call it microdeletion. A tiny difference that has a huge consequence: it partially deactivates the gene in question.  
But that's not all, because the geneticists looking into Jo's case discovered that this microdeletion reached a second gene. A hidden gene, a pseudogene, which is sort of a copy of an older version of the FAAH gene. When a genetic mutation takes place - and we've all undergone them, it's the principle of evolution - the old gene, before mutation, is preserved but it's turned off. Doctors found that this pseudogene, called FAAH-OUT, was still active but was missing a piece of DNA. Another microdeletion would have intervened on this hidden gene, causing it to mutate. This mutation turns it into a kind of switch for the FAAH gene. When the switch is turned off, this is what happens in Jo Cameron, the FAAH gene is silent and lets the anandamide, the famous molecule of bliss, pass into the bloodstream. This is how the 70-year-old feels neither pain nor anxiety. The molecules of happiness flow freely in her blood because her genetic code contains the volume knob of human suffering.

Changing the human condition with CRISPR?

Faced with this discovery, we can imagine that pharmaceutical company scientists will rack their brains to find the drug that reproduces these effects. A drug that would put the painkillers, opioids, morphine and other drugs we take every day on the shelves of old memories. But it gets better. There's CRISPR, the genetic editing scissors that can cut and paste our genes very simply. What could be simpler than using it to replicate the mutation that Jo Cameron "benefits" from? This would allow us to genetically eliminate not only pain, but also the fear and existential anguish of the human condition.
It's an issue that particularly excites scientists in the United States, who are struggling to get out of an opioid epidemic that is overdosing five people an hour across the country. A hecatomb more deadly than guns or traffic accidents. Scientists agree that with CRISPR, it won't be long before a whole new way of treating pain without drugs is born.
According to the magazine WiredDr. James Cox, the molecular geneticist at University College London who identified Cameron's genetic defect, says his group is now using CRISPR in human cell lines to try to mimic its microdeletion and better understand its effects. This will help doctors find the best strategy for potential treatments. Because the mutation occurs in the pseudogene FAAH-OUT, a gene that produces a long chain of RNA that doesn't code for a protein but acts as a regulator elsewhere in the genome, they will have multiple options. Some of these include designing and injecting a complementary RNA sequence that represses the production of FAAH-OUT. This could potentially provide temporary and local relief. But the management of chronic pain would require frequent injections or infusions. So scientists are also looking for a more permanent solution: using CRISPR to directly modify the DNA in cells to replicate the Cameron microdeletion that blocks pain. « It's the beginning, so there's a lot to consider. "says James Cox. « But we think a lot of patients could be helped... "

Inevitable drifts

But, because there is a but, when we talk about CRISPR, we can't help but think about the drifts. The case of this Chinese researcher who gave birth to two genetically modified babies is enough to convince himself of this. If researchers manage to find a way to eradicate pain, sorrow, fear, with a stroke of the CRISPR chisel, it doesn't take much imagination to see the consequences. Parents will want to modify the embryos of their future children to spare them all the pain they themselves are currently suffering. It will be a race for happiness. It will be a juicy market.
But you can also bet that the parents of future babies won't be the only ones interested. Imagining an army of soldiers who feel neither pain nor fear is a bit like bad science fiction. Well, not for everyone! Some people dream about it and their dreams could come true.
This is the case of Vladimir Putin. Invited at the end of 2017 in Sochi at a meeting of young students he mentioned the advances in genetics and the capacity we now possess." to enter into the genetic code created by nature or, as religious people would say, by God. ». He went on to dream aloud: " All sorts of practical consequences can ensue. A man can create a man not only theoretically but also practically. He could be a brilliant mathematician, a brilliant musician... " and he added " ...or a soldier, a man who can fight without fear, compassion, regret or pain... ». He ended his waking dream with these words: " What I just described could be worse than a nuclear bomb. ".
It's not for nothing that the former head of U.S. intelligence had called genetic editing a potential weapon of widespread destruction in its 2016 national report on security threats.
It is almost certain that we will technically be able to modify the gene from which Jo Cameron benefits. For better - the development of effective pain treatments - but also for worse, we've just seen it with, for example, the Putinian fantasies. More fundamentally, however, is it really a good thing to want to suppress pain, fear or anxiety?
Jo Cameron herself says she regrets never feeling that "adrenaline rush" she has heard so much about. She confides that not having an internal alarm system to prevent fractures, the development of her osteoarthritis, or even the slightest illness, can be an embarrassment or even a handicap. The ability to feel pain, although it is an unpleasant part of life, did not develop in the course of evolution for nothing. It is a way for our body to alert us when something bad happens to it. Losing this protective feeling completely may seem, at first glance, like comfortable progress, but it can also be terribly dangerous.
In any case, the modified human future that the sorcerer's apprentices claim to want to concoct for us will be very different from us. By repealing pain, fear or anxiety, we will probably have lost the essential: human nature.

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