The world around us becomes more and more synthetic with each passing day. We can modify and invent life. We do this with corn, with cotton and even with salmon. The list of what we can modify is long and egregious. Soon, we will be able to add “babies” to this mortifying list of manipulations. To start, let’s go back to April of this year when the Chinese announced an ability to modify human embryos. While some of you were updating your Facebook statuses, apparently the Chinese were well on their way to inventing human beings. Specifically, geneticists modified the DNA of human embryos (maybe they weren’t ‘inventing’ humans, per se, but you can clearly see just where this is headed).
The problem with what the Chinese were doing, even early on, was that many who were aware of the situation even before the announcement, feared consequences of such manipulation could be unexpected and dire. Genome-editing tools used to modify DNA isn’t something to take lightly. And when the Chinese announced they were doing it, it wasn’t completely well received. The ability to modify DNA could help causes such as HIV or Sickle Cell Anaemia, but it comes with a host of fears. Here is an excerpt from Nature.com before the Chinese made their April announcement.
In our view, genome editing in human embryos using current technologies could have unpredictable effects on future generations. This makes it dangerous and ethically unacceptable. Such research could be exploited for non-therapeutic modifications. We are concerned that a public outcry about such an ethical breach could hinder a promising area of therapeutic development, namely making genetic changes that cannot be inherited.ADVERTISEMENT
At this early stage, scientists should agree not to modify the DNA of human reproductive cells. Should a truly compelling case ever arise for the therapeutic benefit of germline modification, we encourage an open discussion around the appropriate course of action.
The warnings have been among us all along. But humans aren’t listening. Last week, a three day International Summit on Human Gene Editing was held in Washington D.C. At the summit, a list of acceptable practices in the biotech niche were established. One of the most important points was the clinical use of “Somatic cells.” With Somatic modification, the modifications aren’t passed down to future generations. With germ-line-editing, this is not the case, which poses serious ethical issues. The third point on the list refers to germ-line editing.
3. Clinical Use: Germline. Gene editing might also be used, in principle, to make genetic alterations in gametes or embryos, which will be carried by all of the cells of a resulting child and will be passed on to subsequent generations as part of the human gene pool. Examples that have been proposed range from avoidance of severe inherited diseases to ‘enhancement’ of human capabilities. Such modifications of human genomes might include the introduction of naturally occurring variants or totally novel genetic changes thought to be beneficial.
Germline editing poses many important issues, including: (i) the risks of inaccurate editing (such as off-target mutations) and incomplete editing of the cells of early-stage embryos (mosaicism); (ii) the difficulty of predicting harmful effects that genetic changes may have under the wide range of circumstances experienced by the human population, including interactions with other genetic variants and with the environment; (iii) the obligation to consider implications for both the individual and the future generations who will carry the genetic alterations; (iv) the fact that, once introduced into the human population, genetic alterations would be difficult to remove and would not remain within any single community or country; (v) the possibility that permanent genetic ‘enhancements’ to subsets of the population could exacerbate social inequities or be used coercively; and (vi) the moral and ethical considerations in purposefully altering human evolution using this technology.
It would be irresponsible to proceed with any clinical use of germline editing unless and until (i) the relevant safety and efficacy issues have been resolved, based on appropriate understanding and balancing of risks, potential benefits, and alternatives, and (ii) there is broad societal consensus about the appropriateness of the proposed application. Moreover, any clinical use should proceed only under appropriate regulatory oversight. At present, these criteria have not been met for any proposed clinical use: the safety issues have not yet been adequately explored; the cases of most compelling benefit are limited; and many nations have legislative or regulatory bans on germline modification. However, as scientific knowledge advances and societal views evolve, the clinical use of germline editing should be revisited on a regular basis.
There is a lot more “not good” in this 3rd inclusion than there are potential benefits. One caveat in all of this is that the scientist, globally, can’t induce pregnancy. I believe this is there way to justify the continued research in the face of vast criticism. But at the same time, they haven’t ruled out pretty much inventing humans. In an article published on Gizmodo, a geneticist working on the genome project responded to the idea of creating a human with this:
Despite those objections, the committee did not explicitly rule out the possibility that gene-editing in humans will be allowed in the future:
The international community should strive to establish norms concerning acceptable uses of human germline editing and to harmonize regulations, in order to discourage unacceptable activities while advancing human health and welfare.
We therefore call upon the national academies that co-hosted the summit… to take the lead in creating an ongoing international forum to discuss potential clinical uses of gene editing; help inform decisions by national policymakers and others; formulate recommendations and guidelines; and promote coordination among nations.
The evolutionary path of this biotech would seem obvious at this juncture. Editing human germ-lines, inventing babies, is likely in our future. The ethical issues are huge and prevailing here, but it is unlikely to stop this science from happening. What might start as a way to prevent a baby from being born with Down Syndrome, might inevitably lead to more shallow, self-serving vanity modifications. Gene editing could mean infusing a child with athletic or intellectual gifts beyond that of the normal. These modifications would be passed down in generational bits. What if we are one day ruled by modified humans who have passed down intellectual skill sets? One person wanting to modify a baby’s facial features evolves into another wanting to infuse complex math skills with the ambition of one day solving comprehensive equations in war strategy.
It is easy to make something like DNA editing sound like a good thing, by pitching the benefit it could do in alleviating illnesses and proclaiming global standards in ethics, but the fact is, humans are never settled with just benefiting the world. Eventually vanity alterations to benefit a race may happen. Eventually we are in a human genome war, the casualties being side effects of our manipulations. Eventually, we’d hit a point of no return, unable to remove the editing we’ve done to our life form. I just hope that at some juncture, intervention happens and we stop this madness. But it is not the likely scenario.
Photo by Helgi Halldórsson/Freddi