What if: anyone can edit the human genome?

This blog is part of a series based on the ‘What If?’ sessions taking place at the Annual Meeting of the New Champions 2015. Joe Palca, Science Correspondent, NPR, addresses the question – what if genetic modification of human embryos becomes cheap, easy and ubiquitous? You can watch this session live at 1200 CST (GMT+8, EST+12) using the video player below and follow the highlights further down the page.

Highlights

Background

Any new technology can seem threatening, especially when it involves modifying our DNA, that special chemical that makes us who we are.

So it’s not surprising that an international furor greeted the news last April that researchers from the University of Guangzhou had modified a gene in a human embryo. There were immediate calls for a voluntary cessation of such research, or if necessary a legal ban, and the National Academy of Sciences and National Academy of Medicine promised to develop decision-making guidelines for such research.

But on closer examination, it becomes clear that the issues raised by this case are not new. It’s helpful to remember that new doesn’t mean good or bad, it just means new.

So why exactly did the Guangzhou research cause such consternation? After all, the researchers pointed out that the embryos they modified were defective to begin with, would never be transferred to a woman’s uterus, and that the gene they were trying to modify causes a fatal blood disease. None of that seemed to matter. They had, in the opinion of many, crossed an ethical line.

There are good reasons to hesitate before making changes to a human embryo, not least the fact that although the changes may be well intentioned, they could have unforeseen negative consequences. There’s also the unsettling thought that once a gene is changed in an embryo, it’s a change that could propagate through the human species should the modified embryo ultimately become a sexually active adult.

Fuelling the new furor is the gene-modifying tool known as CRISPR. It’s a technique that makes it much faster and simpler to make genetic changes in living cells. But it’s important to keep in mind that CRISPR does not create new ethical problems regarding genetic research, it merely reminds us that we still haven’t solved ones that have been staring us in the face for more than a half century.

In 1967, genetics pioneer Marshall Nirenberg articulated the following thoughts in the journal Science:

“When man becomes capable of instructing his own cells, he must refrain from doing so until he has sufficient wisdom to use this knowledge for the benefit of mankind. I state this problem well in advance of the need to resolve it, because decisions concerning the application of this knowledge must ultimately be made by society, and only an informed society can make such decisions wisely.”

Whether it is informed or not, society has decided that it is sometime appropriate to instruct cells. Gene therapy trials are currently underway for numerous medical conditions. What differentiates these trials from instructing the cells in the embryo is the changes die with the individual. They will not propagate.

But gene therapy techniques also offered scientists a way to modify embryonic cells, and the arguments for and against that have been around for decades. Nelson Wivel and LeRoy Walters wrote a good review for Science in 1993.

The only new issue CRISPR technology raises is that it seems to make the genome editing easier, changing experiments that were theoretically possible but technically challenging to ones that virtually anyone could attempt.

What’s more, public attitudes about what is considered acceptable can change. In the beginning of the 20th century there was a strong eugenics movement, one that many eminent scientists supported. That’s a practice now considered anathema. When British scientists figured out how to do in-vitro fertilization so infertile couples could have babies, they were initially vilified. Now IVF is a standard medical procedure.

Who knows? In 15 years it may seem unethical not to modify a human embryo if it means preventing a disease.

Author: Joe Palca, Science Correspondent, NPR, USA. He will be participating at the Forum’s Annual Meeting of the New Champions, which is taking place in Dalian, China, 9-11 September.

Image: Blood samples are processed at Biobank, near Manchester, northern England, in this March 18, 2010 file picture. REUTERS/Phil Noble

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