Should Genetic Engineering on Humans Progress?

In 2009, the Canadian-French sci-fi/horror film Splice was released in theaters, telling the story of two scientists playing God and the animal-human hybrid that comes of it. With a disturbing plot and gruesome ending, it gives a chilling warning for the dangers gene splicing present. Now while this movie and terms like “gene splicing” may call to mind an idea of a futuristic, alternative universe, genetic engineering actually plays an important role in the reality we live in. With biomedical advancements being made every day (or so it seems), humanity is approaching the next step in our evolution, which can be both exciting and terrifying.

There are regulations for this progress implemented all over the world. Researchers at Hokkaido University in Japan discovered in 2014 that 29 countries had an outright legal ban on gene editing, while other countries’ regulations were more ambiguous. Some countries, like China, India, and Japan, had bans but did not necessarily have legal enforcement behind them, while others, like the USA, had a moratorium on this research.

However, in this article written by the Associated Press, it was recently revealed that, for the first time in American history, US scientists edited the genes of human embryos. Officials at Oregon Health & Science University confirmed that the experiments took place there and were purely “an exercise in science” in which the embryos were never supposed to be implanted into a womb or allowed to develop.

And in this article from the Washington Post, also released in the past week, it was said that this experimentation might lead to the ability to “altering human heredity,” which in turn could lead to preventing inherited diseases.

Although this progress is certainly exciting, it raises safety concerns and ethical predicaments. It could mean improvements to our health and well-being, or it could cause the rise of “designer babies” and mad science. All in all, it poses the question—should genetic engineering be allowed to progress indefinitely?

There are many professionals who undoubtedly believe so—Jennifer Doudna, a molecular biologist and leading pioneer in this field, is one of them. With a Ph.D in biochemistry, she is a professor of chemistry, molecular, and cell biology at the University of California, Berkeley, and in this TED Talk, she gives a detailed and informative explanation of CRISPR-Cas9, the technology she co-invented that edits genomes.

CRISPR stands for “clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats,” and CRISPR-Cas9 could essentially help us cure genetic diseases. For instance, scientists in Philadelphia used CRISPR to extract the DNA of an integrated HIV virus from the affected human cells. And the research team led by the Oregon Health & Science University used CRISPR to repair the genetic mutations in the embryos.

Doudna obviously supports this progress, yet she still brings up how she and her colleagues “called for a global pause in any clinical application of the CRISPR technology in human embryos” to fully consider the ethical implications. After all, they do not want to create an abomination like the creature from Splice (and for good reason).

However, CRISPR is not the only gene editor in this field. In a web article by Stephen Chen of the South China Morning Post (which has since been removed because of controversy), NgAgo, used by Dr. Han Chunyu and his team and Hebei University of Science and Technology, is said to rival CRISPR. It was initially considered a “scientific breakthrough” in gene-editing but was recently revealed that the findings were unable to be replicated, meaning Dr. Chunyu was forced to withdraw his paper from the scientific journal.

That being said, because of mistakes like the one mentioned above and the ethical dilemmas gene editing present, others firmly believe that it, particularly any involving human genes, should be moderated and even halted altogether. Dr. Paul Knoepfler, an American biomedical scientist and author, focuses on this idea in his presentation concerning the ethics of “designer babies,” or genetically modified human embryos with pre-determined, desirable traits.

(Note: this talk was delivered a month after Jennifer Doudna’s lecture, and thus could be considered an extension or even rebuttal of her ideas, but notwithstanding.)

Knoepfler uses detailed hypothetical situations to describe what children could be like in 2030 with genetic modification technology on the rise. His stance is that while he loves the progress being made, he believes “it opens the door to people going too far.” He explains some of the pros of genetically engineered children, like how they would be less susceptible to diseases which means lower healthcare costs for a society. He also brings in the opposing argument—the support of progress—often, like when he mentions the example of in vitro fertilization. This example demonstrates how human genetic modification has helped humanity in the past, which supports the view that this science should not be stifled.

Moreover, Michael Bess also addresses the dilemmas of designer babies and genetically engineered humans in his novel Our Grandchildren Redesigned: Life in the Bioengineered Society of the Near Future, coming to the conclusion that moderation and restraint are more ideal. Bess is the Chancellor’s Professor of History at Vanderbilt University and has received major fellowships from foundations like the National Human Genome Research Institute, which shows his dedication to the topic. He discusses the advancement of genetic engineering for humans and the implications they hold for the future, eventually describing benefits for new bio-enhanced capabilities which include longer lifespans, more human interactivity, improved emotional and mental control, and overall more complex forms of intelligence and insight. Such benefits could create a greater socioeconomic divide because of the technological expenses and unregulated population growth—as well as discord between modified and unmodified humans due to conflicts of human authenticity and genetic fads.

This not only provides a clear idea of what of this technology could mean for the future of human society, but also the implications it has for the rich and poor of all nations. Socioeconomic standing is always an important consideration when theorizing the effects scientific progress could have on society. It is one reason why Bess concludes that “restraint is the smarter path,” because rapid advancement could bring the destabilization of civilization as we know it.

Delivering a warning even more definite than Bess’s, five scholarly professionals discuss why no one should alter the human germ line (egg and sperm cells) in a scientific article published in the Nature News international weekly journal. They are thorough and professional in their argument, blatantly stating their opinions like “heritable human genetic modifications pose serious risks” and that it could have negative impact on work “involving the use of genome-editing techniques in somatic (non-reproductive) cells.” They give a clear warning when they state “the precise effects of genetic modification to an embryo may be impossible to know until after birth” and examples of how the gene-editing can presently be used, like how it can “offer a powerful approach to treat many human diseases, including HIV/AIDS, hemophilia, sickle-cell anemia and several forms of cancer.” Urging international discussion on the issue from the scientific community, they conclude that doing so could effectively discourage the alteration of the human germ line while also raising awareness about the dilemma.

Personally speaking, I have always been fascinated by genetic engineering. Though it once seemed like such an abstract concept—editing the DNA of living creatures, especially a human’s—I now see it is a realistic process that should be carefully considered. I realize that genetic engineering should not be allowed to progress indefinitely, at least not without some form of regulation, because it could mean the progression of eugenics and scientific extremism. As exciting as the idea of futuristic, engineered humans is to a science lover such as myself, I now better understand the detrimental effects it could have on society. Granted, genome engineering has been developing since the 1970s (according to Dr. Doudna), so this rapid development is not as rapid as we all think. Still, the conflict between unmodified and modified humans in the future could lead to even greater social divide, whether it be because of socioeconomic standing or appearance. However, I am filled with hope that CRISPR can help us cure genetic diseases and generally improve human well-being. All in all, I feel more educated on this topic and better prepared to react to its progress.

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© 2017 Obliquity of the Ecliptic

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