Science has come such a long way that it is now possible to rewrite a human embryo’s DNA, thereby changing a person’s genetic fate. The question has now become - is that morally and ethically responsible? Even if the goal is to correct disease-causing genes, should scientists step in and play God?
In an effort to come to an answer - or at least to find common ground - a conference of international experts will hash it out in Washington next week. The “global discussion” was convened somewhat urgently by national academies in the United States, the United Kingdom and China. The summit is geared towards taking stock of where the world is with respect to technology that has the undeniable power to do good, but also has the power to cause immeasurable havoc.
Ralph Cicerone, president of the US National Academy of Sciences, stated that, “This new technology for gene editing, that is, selectively inserting and removing genes from an organism’s DNA, is spreading around the world.” Therefore, the uses and risks of such technology must be dealt with now.
The last time scientists convened for such a meeting was in 1975, when it became evident that the DNA from one species could be spliced into the genes of another species. The potential for unprecedented disaster led to a gathering in Asilomar, California in order to reach an agreement and determine safeguards for the experiments.
An inventor of the gene editing tool known as Crispr-Cas9, Jennifer Doudna, noted that next week’s summit was convened for similar reasons. “I think it’s this generation’s version of Asilomar. It’s a very exciting time, but as with any powerful technology, there is always the risk that something will be done either intentionally or unintentionally that somehow has ill effects.”
In several countries, it is presently illegal to genetically modify a human embryo destined to become a person. The procedure is known as germline modification and is fraught with moral and ethical dilemmas. By tweaking the DNA of an embryo, the changes translate to every cell in the adult body.
Many scientists attending the meeting are reluctant to forever ban the genetic modification of embryos. They argue that the procedure could prevent horrific genetic disorders from passing from one generation to the next. Moreover, the engineering of embryos could potentially lead to the resistance of disease.
The Royal Society’s Sir John Skehel stated that, “I don’t want to be drawing red lines at this stage.”
Director of the Center for Genetics and Society, Marcy Darnovsky, wants a complete ban on editing human embryos destined to become people. “It’s way too risky and it’s likely to remain that way.” The process could lead to designer babies.
She added that, “People say it is a slippery slope. I don’t call that a slippery slope, I call that jumping off a cliff. We would be well on the way to a world in which people who could afford to do so would attempt to give their children the best start in life, and competitive and commercial pressures would kick in. We’d end up in a world of genetic haves and have-nots, and risk introducing new kinds of inequality when we already have shamefully way too much.”