The Ethics of Gene Editing

With the ability of scientists to genetically modify and edit one’s DNA, they have not only unlocked the possibility of curing diseases they are even diagnosed but have also opened a gateway to the unknown that offers little to no protection, security or nonthreatening state of mind. As said by Andrew Joseph, “People have access to more information about their own genes — or, in this case, about the genes of their potential offspring — than ever before. But having that information doesn’t necessarily mean it can be used to inform real-life decisions.” Gene therapy is still in its beginning stages and the reliance that people have on it being able to help them make decisions about their well being and the well being of their offspring should be taken with a grain of salt. These genetics tests or treatments are not always completely accurate and due to this, should not be significant factors when thinking about the ethical implications of a mother and father deciding what to do with their two week old fetus that is tested, and comes back positive, for a gene that could harm them in the future.

Bioethicist Alta Charo on the other hand does not see that the implications of gene therapy will affect the ethics of parents choosing “designer babies” or of the fears by governments that it will induce a new population of people against one another. As such, her comment that “genetics doesn’t tell us everything we need to know…they have tremendous influence … but we don’t have to assume that by having genetic information we will abuse the choices it facilitates,” implies that the worst case scenarios that may occur with gene therapy, may not even happen. China’s leading CRISPR researcher Dr. Lai Liangxue sees gene therapy in a similar light as the atomic bomb, noting, “I say that depends on who use it, right? Like, like, atomic bomb. That’s kind of — if you use it to make electricity, it’s good. If you use it in a bomb, it’s bad.” So, the fear that an entire new race of species of human can be created within a few decades can be seen as unfounded. There are just too many concerning factors but as can be seen from scientists whose research is the embodiment of their entire careers, they are too inclined to see the negative implications that their work can bring and instead seek to call these fears as irrational and unnecessary. These scientists are exhuming their confidence in the human race by noting how most are both rational and good but the underlying theme is, especially using Dr. Liangxue’s example of the atomic bomb, is that the human race is not all born innately good and since if there is a possibility that gene therapy can pave the way for dangerous experiments, someone will and can use it to their advantage.

In noting the comments made by Dr. Liangxue and Dr. Charo, the question then is, are these fears actually irrational and unnecessary? Because if they are, why does the DOD and Pentagon want influence over genetic treatments? Not for nothing, when a nation’s military and security sector want to track and monitor genetic treatments, the unfounded fears that scientists debate against are certainly something significant enough to deem relevant, to say the least. When the Pentagon sees genetic treatments as ways to cause injury to thousands by “agents of war,” there needs to be a wake up call within the healthcare community. The FDA is just no longer enough to prevent genetic therapy from reaching those who do evil and even with its regulation, there is no saying just how much control they will have over medical and genetic treatments. Although it can be argued that in the coming age of CRISPR and other gene therapies, the need for everyone to have the same and equal opportunity to get information will be significant in preventing the ethical and moral issues that can arise when it is not given out.  Best stated by journalist and historian, David Perry, “the pro-information approach demands that everyone involved in genetic counseling have access to the best data and presents it in a value-neutral way.”

The issues that can arise from the lack of motivation on behalf of the gene therapy community to speak on the negative effects of gene therapy because of their involvement in their own research and development of their treatments will be greater than just sidestepping the issue until more government agencies get involved.

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One Response to The Ethics of Gene Editing

  1. DC November 11, 2017 at 11:49 am #

    Genome editing has been a topic of interest for several decades. Scientists ability to accurately and efficiently edit genes has slowly been improving until the late 2000’s until CRISPR was discovered. CRISPR is the best gene editing tool to date and has enabled scientists to edit genomes in new ways. The applications of CRISPR and other genome editing tools in humans are subject to ethical debate. Some believe that humans shouldn’t tamper with their genetic makeup and “play god”. Others see the potential to cure diseases and use the tools for medicinal purposes. Other genetic tools are already in use in hospitals today. People now can test their 2-week-old fetus for potentially life threatening diseases. In vitro fertilization is a conception method for those who struggle to become pregnant and involves injecting sperm into eggs that are on a dish and inserting the newly fertilized zygote back into the mother. These tools had their share of ethical debate, and still do, but are now common in hospitals.
    Dr. Liangxue mentions his concerns about the consequences of CRISPR technology ending up in the wrong hands. The possibility of engineering new populations of humans that are against each other was addressed. However, as the article stated, genetics alone is not the sole factor that determines all aspects of individuals. This is similar to the nature vs. nurture conversation about whether genetics or how an individual was raised is the bigger determinate on the traits of that individual. There have been examples of identical twins that have the exact same genome being separated at work and end up becoming completely different people. Genetics alone, is therefore not the sole determinate of the traits of an individual.
    The use of CRISPR as a weapon should be something of concern. Altering the genome in detrimental ways could lead to fatal consequences. This is akin to the atomic bomb as the radiation left over can damage DNA. The use of CRISPR should be regulated and the government should ensure this technology is not exploited as an agent of war. It will be interesting to follow this ethical debate, and see if genome editing technology may become a common tool such as IVF.

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