In 2017, whether the general population is aware of it or not — we are well on our way to genetically engineering humans. That’s correct, in the age of non-GMO foods and organic everything; the future is looking like we will be more concerned with organic eggplants than organic children. Is it superficial? Is it health conscious? Is it ethical? Let’s explore.
We are living in a society where non-genetically modified oranges wil be sold in one aisle and a genetically modified child in the next. This is without a doubt paradoxical. An ‘elite’ class of wealthy individuals will stop at Whole Foods for an organic kale smoothie just before going under the knife to achieve the perfect nose.
Robert Sparrow, professor of philosophy and author in a pharmaceutical journal, claims that gene therapy aims to target the root cause of a disease, and has the potential to save a patient from a lifetime of complex treatments. Research into using gene therapy to prevent diseases such as cancer and diabetes is showing some potential. However, it is the power of gene therapy to enhance humans that is causing the greatest concern.
Scientists, philosophers and science fiction authors alike, have been discussing designer babies since the 1930s. However, the issues they have been discussing have remained theoretical until recent scientific advances. The new technology of genome editing, known as CRISPR/Cas9 (clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats), which makes possible precise modifications of the genetics of organisms, has changed the science of genetic modification dramatically, and indefinitely.
Researchers and corporations are rushing to investigate — and hopefully exploit — the potential danger of this new technology to modify human beings genetically. Many of the proposed applications would involve modifying patients’ somatic cells (any cell of the body except sperm and egg cells) in the hope of curing, or at least mitigating, particular diseases and genetic disorders, thus eliminating the need for a lifetime of medical and drug treatments. Such uses of CRISPR/Cas9 would hold tremendous promise.
Many scientists have been quick to solicit the potential of this new technology as a possible “cure” for some forms of infertility and to prevent various genetic diseases affecting future individuals — that might then be coaxed into developing into sperm and eggs. What worries scientists is that the genetic modification could affect the germ line of the future offspring — generations to come. Should something go wrong, multiple generations would be at risk.
Where do we draw the line?
“You have ethical issues raised by this new genetic engineering technology, which could very quickly bring us to the whole ‘perfect baby’ scenario,”
Tom Ekman (co-author of In Babies of Technology: Assisted Reproduction and the Rights of the Child) said, suggesting that CRISPR/Cas9 could even be used to tweak height and skin colour — or even personality. He continued by saying,
“I can’t think of a greater luxury for the wealthy than having a perfect baby. And most of these services are high end and only available to rich people.”
A Very Slippery Slope
Proponents of genetic engineering tend to talk about the potential benefits, such as eradicating hereditary diseases like hemophilia or sickle-cell anemia, not just in a single patient, but in all of his or her descendants as well.
Opponents talk about the dangers of genetic modifications gone wrong, or the dystopian prospect of wealthy parents ‘ordering’ genetically perfect “designer babies.”
“Even unambiguously therapeutic interventions could start us down a path towards non-therapeutic genetic enhancement,” a group of scientists wrote in Nature in March. They told their colleagues around the world: “Don’t edit the human germ line.”
But it may be too late. According to an anonymous researcher cited by Nature, at least four groups in China are working on genetically modifying human embryos. The MIT Technology Review reported that research groups at Harvard Medical School and at least one other centre in Boston are looking into so-called human germ line engineering, along with other scientists in China and the UK.
An Ethical Horror Awaits
Nearly 40 years since the first ‘test-tube baby’, how close are we to editing out all of our genetic imperfections?
A couple sits patiently on an organic leather sofa at the fertility clinic in upstate New York. In one hand they are offered a cocktail menu, and in the other, an embryo menu. The couple decides on a virgin Bellini and and Embryo number 83, which reads:
Embryo 83 – Caucasian male
• No serious diseases, immune to HIV and sickle cell anemia
• Charming personality
• Blue eyes, blond hair, tall, athletic build
• 300% chance of scoring in the 99th percentile of all academic tests
P.S. Also likely to be good at tennis
Where We Stand
Most countries have not yet legislated on genetic modification in human reproduction, but of those that have, all have banned it. The idea of using CRISPR/Cas9 for human reproduction is largely rejected in principle by the medical research community. A team of scientists warned in Nature, less than two years ago, that genetic manipulation of the germ line (sperm and egg cells) by methods like CRISPR/Cas9, even if focused initially on improving health, “could start us down a path towards non-therapeutic genetic enhancement”.
“It is unavoidably in our future,” Greely says, “and I believe that it will become one of the central foci of our social debates later in this century and in the century beyond.” He warns that this might be accompanied by “serious errors and health problems as unknown genetic side effects in ‘edited’ children and populations begin to manifest themselves”.
Although remarkably revolutionary, scientists worldwide are showing strong disproval of these procedures, equipped with the foreboding knowledge that genetic modification will quickly switch from profoundly valuable to profoundly dangerous.