Genetically Modified Humans
Genetically Modified Humans? It’s already happening
If you did not think it was right to genetically modify the food that we eat, then you will be really upset at the thought of genetically modifying human beings. Modifying our DNA in ways that could be passed on to future generations has always been thought of as unethical and even dangerous. It is actually illegal in a number of countries, including Canada.
But, a new report, Human Genome Editing: Science, Ethics and Governance, prepared by the influential U.S. National Academy of Science and National Academy of Medicine, has now opened up the possibility of eradicating inherited diseases from our DNA.
In late 2015, this institution deemed so-called gene editing to be irresponsible because there were too many unknown consequences and a lack of public support for this type of research. But today, they are taking a more pragmatic view, saying essentially that editing of embryos is occurring now, so parameters should be established so that it happens responsibly.
The new report says that inheritable genome editing should be allowed when it is the “last reasonable option” for parents. A theoretical example would be two potential parents who carry the cystic fibrosis gene, and that mutation being edited out of the embryo of their offspring.
Since the panel felt gene-editing was a last resort, it recommended other existing options should be tried first, such as selection of healthy embryos for in-vitro fertilization, and prenatal testing and aborting fetuses. They also stressed that genetic modification should be allowed only to prevent severe inherited conditions, not for purposes of greater enhancement, such as greater height or more intelligence.
The nightmare scenario—played out in books such as Brave New World and movies such as Gattaca ( Ethan Hawke, a genetically inferior man, buys Jude Law’s genes so he can travel into outer space) is very frightening. The new recommendations could put us on a slippery slope toward genetic perfection but the reality is that is highly unlikely.
Every time a new reproductive aid comes along—artificial insemination two centuries ago, IVF in the 1970’s, mitochondrial transplantation (three-parent babies) a couple of years ago, we react with horror.
The same is true for scientific advances. The cloning of Dolly the sheep (in 1996) had experts predicting the imminent cloning of babies and the end of reproduction as we know it. When Christiaan Barnard did the very first heart transplant in 1967, the world was shocked and countries like Canada and the United States refused to do this new procedure because they thought it was immoral. Similarly, the development of revolutionary gene-editing tools CRISPER/Cas9 has promoted dire warnings of designer babies.
Made-to-order babies are not as easy to formulate in a lab as Hollywood would have us believe. There are, for example, more than 700 genes that influence height. So we are not going to be churning out armies of giants or basketball superstars anytime soon.
The tried and true method of sperm-meets-egg in real people is still the most efficient, cost-effective and fun way of making babies. The occasional assist from the lab, which helps those who would not otherwise be parents, is a bonus.
The reality is that gene-editing has the potential to eradicate most inherited diseases and holds much more promise than danger.
Currently there are trials underway to test the idea of taking immune cells from cancer patients and altering them to make them more powerful, potentially enhancing treatment. And imagine if we could edit away non-inheritable traits such as HIV infection or blood disorders such as hemophilia. Chinese scientists have already edited the DNA of embryos to remove the characteristics for another blood disorder, thalassemia, with mixed results.
And if we could use molecular scissors to snip out conditions such as cystic fibrosis or Tay-Sachs, would that be so bad? The danger is that once you splice out a gene, the new DNA will keep on slicing it out whenever it would have appeared in the sequence. This could lead to unintended circumstances such as death.
However, like all scientific breakthroughs, there will be many failures before we get it right. Most of Christiaan Barnards’ patient’s died within months. Today a heart transplant guarantees a long and lasting life and his radical operation, using a heart lung machine, was the precursor of all open heart surgeries.
Instead of banning practices such as germ-line editing (as Canada does in the terribly outdated Assisted Human Rights Reproduction Act), we should be openly discussing the benefits and risks, and establishing ethical boundaries.
Science is developing a breakneck speed. So our public expectations when it comes to eradicating disease. This is no time to draw a line the sand when the sands are shifting.
Some religious people feel that gene manipulation is contrary to the will of God but if you believe the stories in the bible, once Adam and Eve ate the “forbidden” fruit, they now had knowledge of the universe and it is now up to us as human beings to use this knowledge, “good and bad”, to the best of our abilities to make this planet healthier for all of us.
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