Genome editing has garnered significant attention, particularly after Chinese scientist He Jiankui asserted that he genetically modified the genomes of female twins to grant them resistance to HIV. This raises questions about the technology employed and its implications. The method used in this case is genome editing, a process that alters the genetic material of an organism. While promising in conferring specific traits, such as disease resistance, it comes with ethical concerns and potential risks. It is crucial to examine both the pros and cons of genome editing technology to understand its broader impact on science, ethics, and the future of genetic modification.
What technology was used for genome editing?
The innovative tool employed for altering the genetic makeup of these twin girls is recognized as CRISPR-Cas9. CRISPR, an acronym for Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats, combines with Cas9, denoting CRISPR-associated protein 9. Originating from the immune systems of bacteria, CRISPR technology is a result of the adaptation of their gene-editing mechanisms. These built-in systems empower bacteria to counteract invading pathogens in a manner akin to an adaptive immune response.
Bacteria possess the capability to integrate segments of a pathogen’s DNA into their own, enhancing their ability to recognize and defend against subsequent encounters with the same pathogen. Scientists have successfully modified and harnessed this technology, enabling its application in animal models and humans. CRISPR provides scientists with the means to manipulate segments of the human genome by adding, removing, or altering specific DNA components.
The Pros and Cons of Gene Editing in Humans
Let’s discuss some potential pros and cons of genome editing in humans and how it can affect the future, especially babies.
Some Advantages of Gene Editing
Let’s begin with the benefits of gene editing:
Might Prevent Disease
Advocates for genome editing argue that since numerous diseases originate from a single genetic alteration, it makes sense to modify the DNA of embryos or reproductive cells to completely eliminate these mutations. “This could essentially erase a defect from humanity permanently,” stated Tom Whipple, science editor for The Times. Echoing this sentiment, John Harris, a bioethicist at the University of Manchester, expressed to the MIT Technology Review that, given the imperfections in the human genome, it is a moral obligation to actively endorse this technology.
Supporters of scientific advancements in gene editing argue for the implementation of regulations to prevent potential catastrophic outcomes. Arthur Caplan, the founding head of the Division of Bioethics at New York University, suggests the establishment of international guidelines involving the scientific community, religious leaders, ethicists, and legal authorities to govern the responsible use of this technology. Caplan proposes that journal editors should enforce adherence to these rules before publishing related research.
Following the controversial gene-editing experiment by Jiankui, Professor Robin Lovell-Badge, organizer of the Third International Summit on Human Genome Editing, notes significant changes, including discussions on the well-being of the children whose physiology may have been altered and the evolving legal and ethical landscape in China. Lovell-Badge emphasizes the positive transformations resulting from these developments.
Babies Could Help Humanity
Regarding genetically modified embryos, one of the pros is that these babies might grow up doing good for humankind. A survey in the United States revealed that a significant 83% of respondents believe that using genetic modification to enhance a baby’s intelligence is an overreach of medical advancements, as reported by the MIT Technology Review from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Despite this, advocates for genetic engineering contend that enhancing IQ should be a key consideration.
Nick Bostrom, an Oxford philosopher renowned for his insights on artificial intelligence risks, argued in a 2013 publication that even a modest group of highly enhanced individuals could have a profound impact on the world with their creativity, groundbreaking discoveries, and innovations that could benefit the wider population.
Limitations of Gene Editing
Let’s explore some possible disadvantages of genome editing and how it could be potentially dangerous:
Open to Being Misused
American television host John Oliver raised concerns on his 2018 show, Last Week Tonight, about the potential use of gene-editing technology for “enhancements” rather than for combating diseases. He highlighted the profound ethical dilemmas this technology presents, questioning the extent of control people should have over genetically designing their offspring and who determines which genetic issues necessitate correction.
Medical professionals caution that altering a gene doesn’t guarantee an understanding of the resultant effects. “Most diseases involve multiple genes, and modifying several could lead to unexpected outcomes,” as noted by The Times. While many scientists and ethical experts recognize the potential of gene editing to enhance the lives of individuals with severe diseases, the idea of modifying the genome of a human embryo is met with significant apprehension, according to Phys.org. This is because genetic changes can be inherited by future generations.
Dr. John Leonard, President and CEO of Intellia Therapeutics, points out that our current understanding of human biology is insufficient for making genetic modifications on behalf of those yet to be born. He mentions that almost all conditions potentially treatable by gene editing have alternative methods of treatment or prevention. Additionally, he highlights the ethical dilemma of consent, as the unborn cannot consent to these procedures.
Something Only the Rich Could Afford
The Independent notes that ethical discussions surrounding gene editing are intertwined with practical issues such as funding. Currently, access to fertility treatments varies significantly based on local NHS funding, often described as a ‘postcode lottery’. The newspaper further suggests that gene editing might, at first, be accessible only to the wealthiest individuals. Addressing these concerns, panel chair Professor Yeung remarked that if disparities in funding were to intensify social injustice, it would be considered an unethical approach.
Discovering the Pros and Cons of Genome Editing and Its Effects on Humans
In light of the profound implications of genome editing, it is imperative for society, scientists, and policymakers to engage in a balanced and informed discourse. We must carefully weigh the potential benefits, such as disease prevention and advancements in human health, against the ethical, social, and biological risks. This involves not only scrutinizing the technological aspects but also addressing issues of accessibility, consent, and unintended consequences. As we stand on the cusp of a new era in genetic science, it is our collective responsibility to ensure that this powerful technology is used wisely, ethically, and for the betterment of all, not just a privileged few. Let us join hands in shaping a future where genome editing is leveraged responsibly, with the utmost respect for human dignity and diversity.