If you have perused the health and science sections of any major news source lately, you probably have seen many stories about the new recommendations from the National Academy of Medicine and the National Academy of Sciences regarding human genome editing. As well, if those news articles allow comments sections, you have probably seen many polarized opinions regarding the topic (Ahem, here’s looking at you, ScienceNews and ScienceMag)
So, what is human genome editing anyway, and why is this such a big deal?
Well, as scientists begin to unravel the mysteries of the human genome, they also begin to understand just how certain inheritable diseases and disabilities arise through genetic mutations.
Some diseases, such as Huntington’s or cystic fibrosis are caused by single mutations. New technologies like the CRISPR/Cas9 system, allow geneticists to target specific locations in DNA and remove existing genes or add in new ones.
These little modifications could potentially remove the disease-causing DNA snippet and prevent babies from inheriting a disease that they probably would have been born with otherwise.
Here’s a real world example:
A couple is planning on trying for a baby in the near future, and they know they have some bad genes betwixt the two of them. So, before diving head first into the baby making game, they receive some genetic counseling.
Unfortunately, they are informed that there is a high likelihood that their children will go on to develop Huntington’s disease (which is a terrible, debilitating disease I wouldn’t wish on my worst enemy, let alone my own child).
As of right now, that couple’s options would be to:
1) Not have a kid (well, not a biological one anyway…but they could try to adopt or foster a child that’s in need of a loving home)
2) Have a kid and cross their fingers (and toes) in hopes that their child will not inherit the “bad” genes and won’t go on to develop the disease
3) Wait until human germline genome editing is a possibility, and then try to make their dynamic duo a terrific trio (assuming their biological clocks aren’t ticking away)
Option 1 is not everyone’s favorite choice, but it is an honorable thing to do.
Option 2 is a bit of a gamble, so hopefully they’ve built up a good rapport with lady luck.
*Side Note: I personally think it’s a little selfish to bring a life into this world knowing that it has a high risk of being plagued with a horrific disease, just because you want to parent a biological child…however that being said, I’ve never been in a position to make that kind of a decision, and the desire to reproduce is a pretty strong natural instinct, so who knows how I would respond.
But option 3…that’s a whole different story and the focus of great debate within both the scientific field and society at large, because this possibility is moving closer to becoming a reality for some in the near future.
So in this context…
Human genome editing doesn’t seem so scary. It would allow this couple to have a biological child without the risk of developing Huntington’s disease.
But there’s always another side to the issue.
Let’s say that couple has a healthy child who grows up to have a family of their own someday. Scientists have no way of knowing how altering that person’s germline DNA (the stuff that gets passed on to offspring, and what would have to be modified to prevent inherited diseases) will affect their offspring, or their offspring’s offspring.
And while putting together and tracking a multi-generational longitudinal genetic study would be quite a feat, it may not be feasible.
You can’t promise a scientist that if they alter your baby’s genetic information in a way that prevents disease inheritance, that your kid is going to come back to the scientist for study periodically throughout their life, and there’s definitely no way that you can promise that your grandkids are going to fulfill that obligation either.
Unfortunately, these are the kinds of requirements that would need to be in place to ensure that germline genetic modifications are definitely safe in the long-run.
There’s also many ethical implications.
Are we playing God by altering heritable genetic information?
Bioethicists and the public alike are afraid that allowing genetic modification for heritable diseases could open the door to “designer babies“.
In the context of in vitro fertilization, designing a baby would entail picking an embryo that has the most desireable traits, i.e. preferred sex, hair and eye color, low risk of various diseases etc., or potentially modifying the embryo to have increased muscle mass or intelligence.
If you can’t afford to have a home interior decorator come and design your perfect living space, there’s no way you’d be able to afford to have a geneticist design your kid.
Designer babies would widen the divide between the rich and poor even further. The elite would be able to afford such modifications, allowing them to make beautiful, smart, strong, healthy babies that are above average in every way, while the rest of us are left to traditional baby making practices (how boring), resulting in very ordinary babies, with average looks, intelligence, and health.
An unsure future.
While some countries, such as the United Kingdom and Sweden have approved genetic modification research in embryos that will not be implanted, the United States still holds its stance against this form of genetic manipulation.
Currently, geneticists are prohibited from using taxpayer funded dollars to destroy an embryo, and with the current administration’s views on human life and abortion, I don’t see any form of research being approved in the next four years.
Somewhere down the line I envision a society that has eradicated many single-mutation inheritable diseases, working towards therapies to prevent more complex multi-gene diseases.
However, policies regarding genetic manipulation will need to be very explicit and stringently followed to prevent a polarized society of designer humans and average Joes.