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, +0.36% 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 — and served as the inspiration for “Jessica Jones.”
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, 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.
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 paste DNA. That seemed like a graspable concept we could apply to the fictional world of this Marvel show.”
From science to screen
Sheltered by its fictional universe and science-fiction genre, “Jessica Jones” may have been inspired by CRISPR, but it was never supposed to be a replica of real-world gene therapy, Klein says.
“And scientists, I hope, understand that,” she says. (At least one scientist — her sister — approved, she notes.)
Much of the fictional science does in fact differ from the practice of gene therapy, which is today intensely focused on disease, rather than enhancing human abilities.
But gene therapy could likely be used to approximate some of the super-abilities in the show, at least in theory, experts say.
Strength could probably be improved on — though not beyond a certain, human level — as could stamina, vision or height, experts say. Strength in particular comes up frequently as a target for gene therapy because the genetic mutations for diseases like muscular dystrophies and spinal muscular atrophies are better understood.
But “nobody’s ever been born with invisibility or the ability to fly,” notes Brian Brown, associate director of Mount Sinai’s immunology institute and an associate professor of genetics and genomic sciences. A science-fiction enthusiast, his interest in the subject led him to train in gene therapy, and he’s given the subject of super-abilities some thought over the years.
We’ve been watching “Jessica Jones” on Netflix and I only just realized that it’s a story about gene therapy. Gentleman friend rolling his eyes at my delight in this/pedantry about the scientific inaccuracies.
— Manisha Pai (@mppai)
Any attempt to enhance the human body would also encounter the same limits the human body has always had, along with safety concerns and serious side effects, Brown and others told MarketWatch.
And ability enhancement done through gene therapy probably wouldn’t be instantaneous, requiring practice using that trait — say, by working out — to make the change, he says.
Many genetic characteristics also might only be enhanceable in embryos, not adults, which naturally would raise major ethical concerns, says Dr. Mike Milone, an assistant professor of pathology and laboratory medicine at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania.
The task is also far more complex than merely engineering one cell, and likely would involve things scientists don’t know how to control yet inside the body, Milone says.
“You can engineer a plant to make it grow better,” Milone says. “But to engineer a whole forest, you have to change a whole ecosystem, including the weather.”
Changes can also have unintended consequences. That’s been the case in Milone’s field, immuno-oncology, which involves genetically engineering immune cells to fight cancer. The immune cells can also attack normal cells, though. Another type of cancer treatment that also turns the immune system against cancer cells can lead to autoimmune diseases in patients, including diabetes.
Other portrayals of gene therapy on “Jessica Jones” ring truer. The show features gene therapy being used to help stop a neurodegenerative disease, a strategy that’s being pursued in real-world research, and to recover from physical traumas, which is actually being tried for spinal repair and regeneration, Brown says.
The procedure itself, as seen in “Jessica Jones,” involves using panels with dozens of tiny needles that are injected into places like the thigh and back. Artistic license, Klein explains: “it was our best attempt at translating this genetic editing process on our TV show.”
Gene therapy in reality, though, isn’t quite so dramatic, experts confirm — and uses far fewer needles.
Gene therapy, as pictured in Netflix’s “Jessica Jones,” involves panels with dozens of tiny needles.
Fears of rogue scientists resonate
The illicit experiment that gives Jessica Jones super-strength most certainly violates all kinds of laws, along with one of the most fundamental principles of scientific research, consent. Jones never agreed to it.
This “rogue scientist” scenario is particularly salient amid big-picture questions about how the science of gene therapy could be misused.
This debate about ethical ramifications has raged for decades, but especially so amid a modern gene-editing explosion, which has made techniques easier to do, more available and less expensive.
“That constellation of features raises questions about what would happen and what could be done about it,” says Jeffrey Kahn, director of the Johns Hopkins Berman Institute of Bioethics, “and it’s not clear what could be done about it. That’s what makes rogues rogue, is that they find ways outside of restrictions and controls.”
SPOILER! Speaking of gene editing, that was a sub plot to season 2 of Jessica Jones. And while it (genetic engineering) all sounds like groundbreaking stuff, I'm not willing to risk the possibility of it having unintended consequences.
— SON CHASE (@LAMONTA)
Related: The trouble with DIY gene editing
In the U.S., however, restrictions on gene therapies are particularly stringent, Kahn says, including needing approval from institutional review boards and the Food and Drug Administration. Oversight also comes from the National Institutes of Health, and the NIH’s separate Recombinant DNA Advisory Committee, which makes research recommendations to the agency and which Kahn served on for several years until the early 2000s.
Many of the restrictions are predicated on the research taking place at a university, which is where gene therapy work today is being done. Both the individual scientist and the university can be penalized for unsanctioned work, including potential prohibitions on NIH research grants, which Kahn compares to “the death penalty for a scientist’s career and for the institution.”
“Could somebody who didn’t want to do any of these things, and didn’t work in a university environment, perform this outside of oversight bodies and restrictive policies? Sure, they could,” Kahn says. “It’s sort of ‘Island of Doctor Moreau’-ish. You’d have to do it inside a secretive place, and do it outside the accepted world of scientific research.”