Last week, scientists at the Francis Crick Institute in London received the go-ahead to edit the genomes of human embryos from the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA). It didn’t take long for other scientists to begin issuing statements about the danger of moving too quickly. Craig Venter, one of the driving figures behind the sequencing of the human genome, wrote an op-ed for Time magazine calling for extreme caution. Similarly, the International Summit on Genome Editing has concluded that it would be “irresponsible to proceed with any clinical use of germline editing” at this time where germline editing refers to changes to a parent’s genes that their children would inherit.
However, don’t start planning for a dystopian nightmare or utopian paradise just yet (choose according to your own beliefs). While the London experiment could begin within months, it still requires approval from another ethics board. The scientists, led by developmental biologist Kathy Niakan, hope to discover the causes of miscarriages and infertility by studying how human embryos develop during the first week of fertilisation. They will obtain the embryos from IVF patients who have a surplus, with the patients’ consent of course. The embryos used will be destroyed within seven days and won’t be implanted into a mother.
The technology that Niakan and her team intend to use to edit the embryos is known as CRISPR-Cas9. This relatively new technique has been hailed as “the biggest biotech discovery of the century” by the MIT Technology Review while the biochemists who worked on it are widely tipped to win a Nobel Prize in the future. CRISPR has taken the biomedical world by storm on account of it being simpler, cheaper and more precise than previously-existing technologies. Some scientists wish to use it to stop mosquitoes from spreading malaria, to make pig organs suitable for implantation in humans and even to resurrect the woolly mammoth.
If you think that sounds too good to be true, well you’re right. The same factors that make CRISPR so attractive are also raising ethical concerns. Regulatory authorities worry that the field is progressing so rapidly that safety standards are falling by the wayside. Until now, scientists have focused only on changing the genes of somatic cells which are all the cells of the body except for eggs and sperm. There is no danger of these changes being passed on to the next generation. CRISPR is different in that would allow us to easily make alterations that would be inherited by the patient’s children.
The ethical concerns about what these germ-line modifications could mean for the future of humanity has led researchers to voluntarily impose a moratorium on themselves. While Niakan’s experiment would not breach the terms of this moratorium, that has not stopped critics from suggesting that we are approaching a slippery slope towards genetically enhanced humans and designer babies.
Concerns have been raised that this genetic engineering technology would only be available to the wealthiest people and that they would use it to enhance themselves in such a way as to increase the division between themselves and the rest of society. History tells us that this is a valid concern. While a trickle-down effect has been observed with other technologies, genetic enhancement has the potential to be such a disruptive technology that it is unclear if the poorest people would ever be able to catch up. Some people argue that the only way to avoid this discrimination and to prevent the establishment of genetic castes is to ban the technology outright.
However, while scientists working in the area are obviously concerned about the potential abuse of this technology, almost all of them believe that its use is inevitable. Instead of calling for a ban, they plead for patience: better to wait a few more years to ensure that we can utilise the technology safely rather than immediately jumping in at the deep end and doing something we might regret.
Proponents claim that the answer is to legalise and regulate the technology. A ban won’t prevent the wealthy from accessing it anyway as they can afford to just travel to some other more permissive jurisdiction in the same way that they evade their taxes now. Instead, the ban may just condemn people who can’t afford to travel to choosing between no modifications for their children or going to see some black market biologist.
Even if the technology was legalised tomorrow, there would be no need to worry about this leading immediately to the creation of genetically engineered super humans. Complex traits like intelligence and personality depend on countless interactions between as yet unknown numbers of genes. Even if we did know all of the genes involved, the chances of being able to safely edit them all with our current technology are so miniscule as to be non-existent.
Of course not everything is so complex. There are many conditions such as Huntington’s disease, Cystic Fibrosis and early-onset Alzheimer’s disease that depend on just a single gene. Indeed, CRISPR has already been used to cure mice of Huntington’s disease (a neurodegenerative disorder) and Duchenne Muscular dystrophy (a muscle-wasting disease). Some proponents claim that we have a moral imperative to legalise gene editing in order to eradicate these diseases.
The strongest rebuttal to this is that there are very few cases where other more proven techniques wouldn’t do just as well. For instance, if parents are worried about passing on a genetic disorder to their children, we can already use screening to select a healthy embryo and that embryo can then be implanted in the mother. This technique is only impossible when both parents carry the faulty gene but that is a very rare situation.
At the moment, it seems likely that the only thing that the approval of Niakan’s experiment will lead to is more applications from other scientists seeking to conduct similar research. This seems more than ethically justified as it is only by carrying out experiments like this that we will be able to understand just how much we still have to learn.