Gene editing: A path to ‘designer babies’?
“The era of human gene editing has begun,” said Vivek Wadhwa in WashingtonPost.com. In a major biological breakthrough, a team led by researchers at Oregon Health & Science University have successfully modified the DNA of human embryos to replace defective genes that cause a hereditary heart condition. The scientists used CRISPR, a “geneediting system” that essentially cuts the faulty DNA portion out and replaces it with a healthy version of the gene. This is a monumental breakthrough— one that could eventually lead to the eradication of “all hereditary diseases,” including cystic fibrosis, early-onset Alzheimer’s, and some cancers. But it has sparked an ethics firestorm. Will gene editing also be used to make people taller, stronger, smarter? Where will we “draw the line”? There are already “plenty of people who wouldn’t think twice about dictating their embryo’s IQ,” said Nicole Russell in the Washington Examiner. The CRISPR research moves us a step closer to “designer babies.”
Sorry, but “these fears are closer to science fiction than they are to science,” said Pam Belluck in The New York Times. CRISPR alters just one gene with a harmful mutation; characteristics like intelligence and height are shaped by thousands of genetic variations. To prevent scientists from going too far with genetic modification, society simply needs strict laws, regulation, and oversight. Every advance of this type has produced “hysterical” predictions of engineered superbabies and mutants, said André Picard in The Globe and Mail (Canada). “We saw it whe n in vitro fertilization was pioneered” and “when Dolly the sheep was cloned.” Yes, there are potential perils, but with 10,000 single-gene disorders plaguing mankind, think of the “hurt, heartache, and premature death” we can prevent.
Be that as it may, there is still “a great deal we don’t know” about gene editing, said the Los Angeles Times in an editorial. Once people start passing edited DNA to their offspring, “minor issues might become major ones.” When scientists first used genetic modification to create “more uniformly red” tomatoes, for example, they inadvertently “turned off the gene that gave tomatoes flavor.” Who knows what might happen when edited embryos grow and develop? Clearly, preventing disease and suffering is a worthwhile aim. But let’s “get human gene editing right rather than just getting it soon.” ■