Christine Silak, ‘22 Business/Ad and Circulations Manager
Recent technology advancements have allowed scientists to create something called heritable genome editing, or in more simple terms: designer babies. This science allows for “gene editing” of humans that changes the genes of eggs, sperm, or early embryos to control the traits of the future child. This can be used in two ways—to prevent medical conditions (genetic cancer, and other hereditary disorders) or for cosmetic purposes (hair color, eye color). This recent advancement begs the question: is this science a breakthrough or a nightmare?
Ethically, many people argue that this science is unacceptable. In fact, according to the Center for Genetics and Society, it is prohibited in 70 countries by a binding international treaty. In late 2018, biophysicist He Jiankui announced he had created the first genetically modified babies—“beautiful little Chinese girls named Lulu and Nana,” who had come “crying into the world as healthy as any other babies.” He claimed to have disabled a gene called CRR5, that encodes proteins to allow HIV into cells. While he was aiming to protect people from infection, he may have inadvertently mutated a separate part of the genome, leading to unpredictable health consequences. There is still no definitive evidence that he successfully modified the girls’ genes; however, since then, questions directed towards the scientific community have become a matter of ethics. Critics claim that only a global ban on human genetic engineering can prevent a new era of eugenics from emerging.
Some are worried that public scrutiny will affect the future of DNA and genome engineering, whether in humans or not. “The negative focus, is of course, not good,” stem-cell scientist Frederick Lanner said. Members of the global scientific community were in horror at the way that Jiankui had defied scientific conventions, ignored basic rules for research on human subjects, and violated the norms of medical practice. The technology that Jiankui used was still in a very experimental stage and essential safety procedures were neglected. In fact, Jiankui, after being proven to fail standard safety procedures among participants, was fired from his university in Guangdong where he worked.
For the public at large, this served as a wake-up-call for the possibilities of human gene editing. In retrospect, with more testing, it could be possible to override the outcomes of the genetic lottery. Conversations are starting about the shift that could take place in the discussion of human rights, ethics, and gene modification.