The question isn’t new. Modifying humans has been a persistent fantasy for hundreds of years. Shelley created Frankenstein. The film Gattica created a society driven by genetically manipulated people. And then there’s Tom Cruise, who created himself. 2016 gave this world potentiality with the emergence of CRISPR, a genetic modification tool that’s currently on track to quite literally change the world. For those unaware, CRISPR is essentially a highly precise copy-paste genetic tool that allows for gene editing—think of it as a genetic re-do button: Oh, don’t like that gene, well, here’s a new one. And it has polarized the science community.
What’s so cool about this type of gene editing? Well, for starters, it could cure genetic diseases. It could also save endangered species or even resurrect extinct animals. Of course, all of that sounds great to the science community, but it’s the ethical implications of innovating such technologies. Perhaps most controversial is the potential to customize the genetic makeup of embryos, meaning…”build-a-baby.” Some scientists argue that manipulating the genes of embryos with genetic defects like Huntington’s Disease can save countless times. At the same time, scientists ponder how far this genetic modification will go: If science can manipulate a cancer-causing gene, then what’s to stop a scientist from altering a little extra?
Who’s right in this debate? Well, who knows?
Point: It Could Eliminate Genetic Disorders
Those who say embryo modification is unnatural or “playing God” focus too much on the concept of natural being “good.” Diseases are natural. Hurricanes are natural. Fourteen-year-old boys with erections in math class are natural. Natural isn’t always “good,” and technologies like CRISPR can change that.
Thus far, researchers using CRISPR have been able to treat animals carrying an inherited liver disease and muscular dystrophy. In 2015, Chinese scientists successfully modified a gene linked to a blood disease in human embryos (quick note: these embryos were alive but damaged, so they could not become babies), and, last year, the same group edited the embryo genes to make them HIV resistant.
Why is this so great? By eliminating “bad” genes from sperm and egg cells—the “germline”—scientists could fix—and theoretically wipe out—almost any genetic abnormality, be it muscular dystrophy or cystic fibrosis; but, moreover, this technology also possesses the ability to edit genes that could potentially become life-threatening like genes that carry various types of cancer or even MS.
As of right now, there are more than 6,000 known genetic disorders—and that’s not including those disorders that predispose someone to a future ailment. Now, imagine a world without these. That means: No cystic fibrosis. No Tay-Sachs. No more genetic breast cancer or colon cancer or heart disease. No more suffering and death caused by a shitty, genetic lottery. That’s the point John Harris, professor emeritus in science ethics at the University of Manchester, emphasized in an article for National Geographic.
Harris went on to add that we can’t “delay” the research, either, because each decision to delay costs lives. Too many lives.
At last year’s International Summit on Human Gene Editing, during a debate discussing the ethics of gene editing, one audience member, a mother to a son who had lived just six days, tortured by seizures due to a genetic ailment, drove home the need to start implementing this technology now, “If you have the skills and the knowledge to eliminate these diseases, then freakin’ do it!”
Counterpoint: What About Future Implications? Isn’t This Awfully Close to Eugenics?
Eliminating the threat of cancer is fucking great. But eliminating the threat of cancer while exposing your child to another form of cancer isn’t so great. A major concern among scientists is the uncertainty about what could go wrong if troubling genes are simply eliminated.
For starters, genes function on multiple levels. A single gene could outline your hair color, temperament, and an obsessive love for all things chicken. Now, consider, for example, the genes responsible for sickle-cell anemia, a genetic disorder that, depending on which specific sickle-cell gene someone carries, can kill or protect against malaria. Is that a gene scientists should just remove?
One of the more outspoken researchers of CRISPR, Jennifer Doudna at UC-Berkeley, voiced her concerns in Nature:
“Human-germline editing for the purposes of creating genome-modified humans should not proceed at this time, partly because of the unknown social consequences, but also because the technology and our knowledge of the human genome are simply not ready to do so safely.”
It’s clear to scientists that research in genetic tools must continue to evolve, and human testing is a natural progression, but at what future risk? Nobody, especially Will Smith, wants I Am Legend to become reality, right?
In December 2015, the Organizing Committee for the International Summit on Human Gene Editing warned of the ethical considerations, noting the obligation to consider the future generations who will carry the genetic alterations and that, once introduced, these alterations would be difficult to remove, giving the possibility of permanent genetic “enhancements” to a population.
And who’s to decide what future generations will look like?
Stuart Newman, PhD, a professor of cell biology and anatomy at New York Medical College, calls the production of genetically modified human embryos “a first step toward making quasi-humans for spare parts.” He goes on to add, “This will be followed by attempts to produce disease-free and other made-to-order children, with inevitably experimental errors. This is a technological move that will benefit the health of no living person, will harm some future ones, and should be avoided at all cost.”
Opening the door to one kind of germline modification, no matter how good the intentions, will likely open it to all kinds—meaning men will probably be charming Kennedys donning ten-inch packages and women classic Audrey Hepburn types.
Maybe what makes humans perfect is the imperfection, and we shouldn’t mess with that.
Top photo by Bart Heird CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
Tom Burson is a travel writer, part-time hitchhiker, and he’s currently trying to imitate Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego? but with more sunscreen and jorts.