Politicians are renowned for their wily rhetoric, so you could have been forgiven for rolling your eyes when congressman Bill Foster stepped up to the podium as the first speaker at the International Summit on Human Gene Editing.
“[researchers] now stand on the precipice of not only changing the future of mankind, but also mankind itself”
Foster declared that researchers are “on the verge of a technological breakthrough that could change the future of mankind”. But good ol’ Bill isn’t an ordinary politician, he’s the only physicist in congress for a start, so he knows his science and read this statement with literal sentiment. Recent advancements in technology have allowed researchers to delve ever further into the mysterious realm of DNA, and they now stand on the precipice of not only changing the future of mankind, but also mankind itself.
Human gene editing has the capacity to treat incurable diseases and in some cases, create an immunity in future generations from hereditary diseases such as cystic fibrosis and Huntington’s disease. Its potential is so vast, scientists and ethicists from around the globe convened in Washington D.C. for a historic three day summit (December 1 - 3), to consider the profound questions and ethical implications that such research ultimately creates.
To understand what is so concerning about editing human genes, it’s best to begin by explaining that gene therapy can be divided into two fundamental categories. Firstly, somatic cell therapy; this process targets non-reproductive cells in a human body in order to fix or replace the effected genes, with possible applications being the treatment of cancer and HIV patients. As this process only targets non-reproductive cells, any changes to a person’s genes are contained within that individual and will, basically, die along with that person when their life eventually comes to an end (hopefully at a ripe old age after their successful treatment of course). The second kind of treatment is called germline therapy, and is far more controversial. This process focuses on reproductive cells, editing the genes of sperm and eggs to prevent genetic diseases from actually developing, but when these changes are made, they are passed on to all future generations.
With the creation of revolutionary technology such as the CRISPR-Cas9 system, an editing tool so cheap and simple to use it has been likened to the cut and paste feature on a computer, it has opened up a new wave of research into this area. Even the most rudimentary of laboratories across the world can now carry out their own experiments on editing the human germline. It is this development that formed the foundation for debate at the summit, as participants sought to reach a consensus on how, and even if, they should drive forward with this controversial research.
focuses on reproductive cells, editing the genes of sperm and eggs to prevent genetic diseases from developing”
The opportunity to develop genetic immunities that can be passed on hereditarily is a wondrous prospect, one scientists understandably wish to pursue. However, DNA is so intrinsically complex that modifying genes to try and create an immunity for one disease could inadvertently, drastically increase an individual’s susceptibility to another disease. So little is known about the true long term effects of editing human genes that scientists fear they may create irreversible defects that would be passed on to future generations.
Another ethical debate revolves around the concept of ‘designer babies’, and though the focus at this stage is purely on utilising the potential of germline therapy for medical procedures, George Church of Harvard Medical School believes enhancements “will creep in the door in terms of treating seriousness illnesses”. Were this to happen, it is feasible to assume that the greedy mitts of capitalism and consumer demand would eventually transform the process in to a commodity; so one day the very genetics of a person could be a new measure of inequality in society.
There were a myriad of arguments for and against, some emotional, some contemplative, but ultimately the summit decided that although clinical research should continue in to somatic cell therapy, there are simply too many unknowns to proceed with clinical germline therapy at this time. In their final statement they concluded that “as scientific knowledge advances and societal views evolve, the clinical use of germline editing should be revisited on a regular basis”, so it seems only a matter of when, not if, we begin to change the future of mankind.