The fear that a lack of self-imposed rules and/or government regulations governing the latest genome-editing technique could end up creating a new human race has prompted scientists to act.
Some of the leading geneticists have called for a worldwide moratorium and asked researchers to take a step back before it’s too late to reverse what many fear could completely alter human kind.
According to a March 2015 New York Times article, one of these scientists, Jennifer A Doudna (University of California, Berkeley), was the “lead author” of an article published in the journal Science calling for the moratorium (2).
Doudna along with other renowned scientists, such as by Edward Lanphier, chairman of the Washington, DC Alliance for Regenerative Medicine want the moratorium to discuss the ethics and safety issues surrounding this three-year-old technology.
Scientists Claim Gene-Editing of Human Embryos Has Occurred
In a March 2015 article published by Nature, the suspicions that human embryo gene-editing had already occurred were revealed by scientists who insisted on anonymity. The concerned researchers told Nature that edited genomes of human embryos had already been created. They also revealed that several papers about these experiments were currently “under consideration for publication.”
In January 2015, scientists met in Napa, California and discussed how gene-editing might be used or more importantly, exploited and what would be the ethical, moral and legal ramifications. Out of that meeting came a “perspective paper” written for Science. The paper outlines the researchers’ concerns.
The centerpiece technology of this controversial call to halt research is the CRISPR (Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats) technique (3).
In fact, Nature published a comment made by Lanphier appealing to the scientific community to agree “not to modify human embryos — even for research.” Lanphier told Nature that there needed to be a halt on “all germline editing in human embryos.” Among his colleagues calling for a moratorium is gene-editing pioneer Fyodor Urnov (Sangamo BioSciences).
CRISPR Presents Ethical Dilemma
CRISPR is a RNA-guided platform for gene-editing. It “… makes use of a bacterially derived protein (Cas9) and a synthetic guide RNA to introduce a double strand break at a specific location within the genome”. Enzymes are used to target certain DNA sequences. “The enzymes cut out the faulty sequence and replace it with a functional copy.” (4)
This technique replaces earlier ones first developed in 2000. The problems with previous techniques were the inability to target specific genes accurately. The CRISPR technique not only accurately targets defective genes, but allows scientists to delete them and insert copies of healthy genes in their place.
The technique is so precise in modifying genes that it can cut DNA at very specific points. It can be used on sperm, eggs or embryos to modify babies before they are conceived or born (5).
One of the biggest ethical concerns is that genetic editing is permanent. That means that whatever genes are changed will have far-reaching effects. A person born as a product of such genetic manipulation will have no choice and be forever changed. Those altered genes will then be passed on to their children, grandchildren and every generation that follows.
Is it ethical to make such alterations? Is it moral? Simply because it can be done, should it be done? This is an especially tricky topic since such gene-editing would occur before the person is born.
This means the person has no say in the procedure or even any knowledge what is being done to them in the embryo or pre-conception stage. The question becomes about the unborn child’s rights. This is especially true if the technology is exploited to birth a “designer baby.” Aside from these ethical debates, such gene-editing could also have extreme legal ramifications.
CRISPR Technique Could Easily be Exploited
Lanphier and fellow scientists concerned about the CRISPR technique being “exploited for non-therapeutic modifications” fear it could potentially end their research and the promise of therapeutic applications.
Aside from the ethical reasons to limit the use of this technology, the main concern seems to be hinged on how the public would react to human gene-editing. Lanphier told Nature that the outcry by the general public “could hinder a promising area of therapeutic development.”
Since the exploitation of this technology could easily lead to the creation of more intelligent, more attractive and stronger humans, some scientists believe the public would rebel against the technology. Such outcry could be detrimental to the entire field of research and bring it to a permanent halt.
However, the far-reaching effects of altering the human genome to produce designer babies could cause other types of mutations in cells that aren’t targeted for the gene manipulation.
Nature cited a study conducted of one modified gene in stem cells that had a ripple effect causing “minimal mutations elsewhere”. However, it was pointed out that this was a singular study of only one case. It would require a broader study to validate if this was a normal effect or simply a one-time event. It’s possible that such ripple effects could outweigh the benefit of genetic modification for a patient suffering from genetic defects. It might be a risk that patients would be willing to take.
As a new science, it’s impossible to determine what, if any, far-reaching effects such genetic manipulation could have, especially those involving the creation of designer babies. It might be that by altering genes to create a more perfect human being that the genes of future generations could mutate.
The scenarios of unknown possibilities are the stuff that science fiction horror movies are made of. It’s also possible that gene-editing could eradicate disease, increase the human life span and completely change human existence as we know it.
References & Image Credits:
(1) TSW: Genetic Modification May Widen Gap Between Rich and Poor
(2) New York Times
(5) Wikipedia: CRISPR