Genetically engineered crops have been in use since the late 90s, and even that has flared up opposition based on possible risk to human health, the environment and other unforeseen repercussions. So mention genetic modification of humans, and the immediately conjured image is that of a perfect, superior and absolutely terrifying race of people that seem far less human than us. Whilst the technology for such things aren’t quite in our grasp yet, I think it is worth keeping tabs on just how advanced genetic engineering is becoming and start considering the consequences… before it’s too late (dun dun duuuuuun!).
So where are we at right now? Well, in 2015 this debate was reignited by a group of Chinese researchers who attempted to remove a mutated gene causing a deadly blood disorder from non-viable embryos. They did this using the game-changing gene-editing CRISPR-Cas9 tool which came about in 2013. CRISPR is part of a natural defence mechanism within bacteria against viruses, and cas9 is an associated enzyme to CRISPR. When it comes to genetic modification CRISPR-Cas9 can be manipulated to cut out any section of DNA, and if a new piece of DNA is placed near the cut site it is accepted by the body as a replacement. This means that ‘bad’ genes can be removed and replaced by the healthy version, but it’s not as straightforward as it seems. The research in China had to be abandoned partway through, because unintended mutations were found in the genome which could cause cell death and transformation. Clearly, not a great outcome but it did, as I said, grab the public’s attention and get people talking about it which in itself is a much needed effect.
Since then, research on human embryos has been carried out in various places but never with the intent to implant them into a woman. Recently, details of the first successful genetic modification of a human embryo in the US were released. The scientists also used CRISPR, this time to remove the mutation causing a heritable heart condition which can cause sudden cardiac death. This was an exciting discovery but again would not result in implantation. So why not? Implantation of genetically modified embryos is illegal everywhere, with any research at all in the UK being very limited. But should it be?
Let’s first consider how genetic engineering of embryos could be an asset to the medical world. The most obvious use for genetic modification is to use it to eradicate genetic diseases. Countless diseases, many of which are very dangerous, are caused not by viruses or bacteria but due to mutations in our DNA. Whilst genetic engineering cannot help those already living with such a disease, it can prevent those diseases from being passed on to offspring and future generations. Long term, this could lead to targeted diseases eventually dying out. Clearly, that would be a desirable outcome which could save many lives. But as well as how dangerous a disease may be, it is important to also consider how living with that disease affects quality of life. Many genetic diseases, like cystic fibrosis, can only be managed rather than cured. That management can sometimes require a lot of care to be provided by medical staff and/or family members and can limit the freedom and capability of sufferers. By correcting the mutation in an embryo which screens positive for a certain disease, the resultant baby when born would be void of the disease as opposed to having to manage the condition for the rest of their lives.
Some have suggested that the need to eradicate genetic diseases is unnecessary, given that embryo screening means parents who are concerned about passing on a disease to their offspring can screen embryos and select to use those which are healthy. However, this method still results in diseased embryos being destroyed which in itself is considered unethical dependant on at what point you believe life begins. Furthermore, some parents can go through countless expensive IVF treatments, screening each time, and still be unable to produce an embryo which doesn’t have the disease. In this case, the only other way to ensure a child can be born from those parents is from the use of genetic engineering.
One fear voiced by some is that any change to our DNA could create a butterfly effect, with unpredictable consequences affecting future generations with altered genes. Indeed any change would always carry a risk of unexpected and unwanted repercussions and so any and all genetic modifications would need to be considered carefully to try to minimise the occurrence of such ramifications. Some say that better yet, no changes should be made full stop to the human genome as the risk isn’t worth the benefit. This argument could be coupled with the above one, ensuing that genetic engineering is not necessary as alternative options are available so why take the risk for something that isn’t an absolute must?
A similar issue surrounding genetic modification is the idea that by selecting or ‘deselecting’ certain genes and versions of genes, we make the gene pool smaller and reduce genetic diversity. In the future, this could cause problems should the deselected genes became useful, desired or even necessary. For example, if a disease was deadly to everyone except those with a certain mutation but that mutation was no longer around due to genetic engineers targeting the removal of it, then the human race could be seriously under threat. Of course, this is a worst-case-scenario example but one which still needs to be considered, not to mention that lower scale versions of this could happen also. There is a flaw with this argument though, in that I struggle to see how the mutation for, say, Down’s syndrome could benefit future generations. Whilst I understand that we should preserve as much genetic variety as possible, I do not think that retaining genes which are not just ‘undesirable’ but are actually harmful and causes suffering is necessary for the sake of genetic diversity.
Finally, and most importantly to most people, there’s the matter of designer babies. Even with the emergence of genetically modified crops, worries about the applications in humans to create designer babies were loudly voiced. The selection of certain characteristics which are considered more desirable, such as intelligence, would clearly be wrong… wouldn’t it? Of course, one could say that a great many characteristics, physical or otherwise, do have some sort of health benefit so it is ethical to seek them. After all, medicine looks not just to cure illness but prevent it and improve quality of life. So it stands to reason that if freckles are associated with a higher risk of developing skin cancer, then genetic modification to remove freckles makes sense, no? And if self-esteem issues could be prevented by genetically engineering babies to make attractive adults, would that not improve the mental health of the general population?
I’m hoping at this point that you can see the point I am leading into, and not just cheering me on. Almost all genetic modifications can be argued to be of value medically, with some arguments being admittedly less believable than others, and so we reach the heart of the problem with genetic engineering; at what point is the modification acceptable, and when have we gone too far? And so the solution for many is to just proclaim all modifications are unacceptable, and the result is that no progress can be made because everyone is too busy worrying about the worst case scenario.
But how likely is this scenario, really? Already, research happening now must have ethics approval. The currently proposed use of genetic engineering would be carefully monitored and controlled. Any governments that endorsed it would no doubt be setting guidelines and restrictions to make sure it didn’t get out of control, wasn’t misused and was safe and ethical. If these rules set out were even in the least bit breached, the watchful eye of the authorities would be alerted and the scientists could be stopped long before they got anywhere close to the production of ‘designer babies’.
What’s more, many characteristics are not solely controlled by genes, but by environmental influences. And even though genes do play a part in it, often more than one gene affects a feature that a person may have. So qualities like intelligence or sportiness can’t just be ‘manufactured’ into a person, and the emergence of designer babies isn’t quite as realistic as people fear it could become.
Whether you agree with genetic engineering embryos or not, the most important thing right now is that the matter is brought to the public eye in a big way. We need people talking and thinking about where they stand on the matter, so we can begin to put regulations like the ones mentioned above into place. Perhaps society will continue to ban genetic engineering altogether, as it generally has in the past. Or maybe, common sense and a little faith in the human race not to take it too far will push us into the future, one with fewer genetic diseases and less suffering.
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