The Ethics of Genetic Modification

This past November, at the Second International Summit on Human Genome Editing, a Chinese biophysics researcher named He Jiankui claimed to have helped create the world’s first genetically modified babies. This startling announcement opened a floodgate of excited, concerned, and angry responses from the international scientific community.

He Jiankui altered embryos for seven potential parents during fertility treatments, with one resulting in the birth of twin girls. The procedure was intended to give the babies resistance to HIV, since their father is HIV-positive. He Jiankui used CRISPR-Cas9, a DNA-editing tool which acts like a pair of scissors, to snip out CCR5, the gene enabling HIV to enter and infect immune system cells.

Genetic modification (GM) has long been used extensively in the food and agricultural industry, and scientific research involving animals and drug production has been revolutionized by CRISPR and its cost efficiency. A plethora of transgenic animals––organisms that possess foreign genetic material in their genomes–exist today, from salmon to pigs and beyond. However, He’s actions sparked widespread criticism for a number of reasons.

First, altering genes that can be passed down to future generations could potentially alter the entire human genome. This practice, called human germline editing, is banned in the United States, and many researchers and bioethicists around the world condemned He’s experiment as rash and naïve. Biochemist Jennifer Doudna of UC Berkeley called it, “a break from the cautious and transparent approach of the global scientific community’s application of CRISPR-Cas9 for human germline editing.”

Second, scientists are concerned about the medical dangers entailed by using still-developing technology without knowing whether there might be unintended consequences on our complex genetic system. For example, in He’s case, the removal of CCR5 may put the patients at increased risk for the West Nile Virus. Therefore many believe that for now, the risks still outweigh the potential benefits.

Finally, offering parents the opportunity to genetically modify their babies would undoubtedly increase temptations for non-medical enhancements, such as making one’s children stronger or smarter. Where is the line between ethical and unethical modifications? What are the implications of a world soon to be filled with “designer babies” equipped with every seemingly “perfect” trait? Since the wealthy would have greater access to genome editing services, we could expect a growing disparity between the genetics, health and abilities of people from different socioeconomic classes.

Others argue that despite these dangers and uncertainties, it would be unethical to withhold genetic modification treatments if they are proven to be effective, especially for life-altering genetic diseases such as cystic fibrosis and Huntington’s disease.

As GM’s potential continues to grow, pushing scientific and ethical boundaries, these issues will continue to be debated both within the scientific community and in society at large. We should prepare ourselves for more collisions, in the near future, between discovering what we can do and deciding what we should do.

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