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Monday, April 27, 2015

Editing genes in human embryos -- we may be almost there, for better or for worse

And all long-term exercises of power, especially in breeding, must mean the power of early generations over later ones. - C. S. Lewis, The Abolition of Man. HarperOne, 2015 paperback edition, p. 57. (Originally published in 1943)

Wired has recently reported on what they are calling gene editing. (Another term is human genetic engineering.) The title of the article is "America Needs to Figure out the Ethics of Gene Editing Now." Yes.

What is gene editing? Gene editing is changing the DNA of an embryo. In the Wired report, it mentions that Chinese scientists attempted this, with the goal of curing an inherited disease before the embryo was born. According to the article, the experiment didn't work, and was terminated. My guess is that, even if there were no reasons not to do this, and government and industry invested heavily in it, we still wouldn't see any successful medical interventions of this type for several years.

The article includes several statements from scientists and others, all concerned that there is a possibility that this sort of treatment is likely to result in unforeseen bad consequences, most likely in deformed embryos or infants. (That seemed to happen in the Chinese experiments.) In other words, even if the techniques become well understood, and scientists and medical personnel become proficient in such techniques, the procedures won't always work.

Another reason for concern, not really raised in the statements, is the likelihood that human embryos will have to be used, and sacrificed, in the development of the techniques, for practice, as it were.

Yes, we need to have a conversation about this, and now. As the quotation at the beginning of this post indicates, C. S. Lewis, for one, was concerned about this sort of thing, although his statement was published about ten years before the discovery of the DNA double helix. Others, including ethicists, politicians, theologians, lawyers and scientists, have been concerned since that time. The reasons for their concerns are almost coming to fruition. (Not everyone is concerned. Some people want to forge ahead, and let the consequences fall where they may.)

The research discussed above is motivated by a desire to help children who have inherited diseases. But future gene editing might be for less beneficent purposes. For example, it might be possible to edit the genes of an embryo so that that embryo would be more likely to develop into someone with athletic prowess; or with a certain kind of hair, eye, or skin color; with the likelihood of getting better grades at school; or even with genes from other organisms -- firefly or jellyfish fluorescence comes to mind, as a cosmetic "enhancement." Such gene editing would most likely exaggerate the gap between the haves and the have-nots, even if there were no other bad consequences. It also might be an important step on the road towards re-defining what a human being is, and is not.

Thanks for reading.

Kathryn Applegate, at BioLogos, has commented on this research, and the questions surrounding it.

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