Washington – A new, state of the art tool to alter, rearrange and select human genetic code has a funky and futuristic zing to it. Applications of this new development are immense from designer babies, cosmetic changes to curing incurable diseases. But to what extent should we avail this, how far should we go? Cure only the sick or go for upgrades which even the future generations have to inherit.
The National Academy of Sciences is hosting a three-day meeting starting this Tuesday of hundreds of scientists and geneticists from more than 20 countries to discuss gene editing in Washington. The fame and following of CRISPR-Cas9, the genome-editing tool which uses bacterial enzymes to clip genomes at specific spots to either disrupt or repair troublesome genes, has sparked this ethical debate and many believe an international discussion on this is long overdue. Opening the summit Nobel Laureate David Baltimore of California Institute of Technology said “We sense that we are close to being able to alter human heredity” and to pore over these “deep and disturbing questions”.
At this stage, it’s all experimental but the fascination for new advancements is really immense. Looking at the case of Layla Richards, a one-year-old baby who was cured of leukemia this month by the use of “designer” immune cells that fabricated and retracted her cancer genetically. Treatments are being developed for incurable diseases like sickle cell, muscular dystrophy, various cancers, AIDS, etc. This process is already being used to create stuff like disease-resistant plants, mosquitoes incapable of carrying malaria, etc. The ethical dilemma we face is should it be pursued in human embryos as well because transforming a gene is not just one person but his/her heirs and future generations will inherit them as well. China in order to start learning how, in fact, has already disclosed the first laboratory experimentation with embryos. Marcy Darnovsky, who opposes gene editing, of the center for Genetics and Society advocacy group, said, ” This is really a decision which will affect all of us”. She termed it as a “society-altering technology. Critics also say that transmission of other diseases can be stopped in many other ways also like couples can opt for in vitro fertilization and the resultant embryos can be tested for any problematic hereditary gene before choosing the one to be implanted.” However primary proponent of gene editing, Jennifer Doudna of University of California, Berkeley, cautions that important discoveries can get blocked by a ban on even basic gene editing research in embryos. In her article in Nature, she pressed scientists to look for “an appropriate middle ground.”
Kerry Bowman, University of Toronto professor and an ethicist expresses that gene editing can mitigate suffering, but there’s also potential for harm. “The children born from this would then pass on the changes incurred to their children, their children, and their children,” Bowman voiced. “So the human germline is shifting. This would be a permanent change to the human story.”
One of the objectives of the Washington summit will also be to constitute a protocol, a ground rule for the scientists of the world to pursue while editing genes.