HUMAN GENOME EDITING: SHOULD WE PLAY GOD?

How far has mankind gone into breaking nature’s law which governs life and death? Medical advancements over the decades have saved and improved numerous lives. Amongst them, genetic engineering arose and have since challenged ethics. Today, we have arrived at an important medical breakthrough in human history: embryo gene editing. This unfamiliar yet promising technique could bring about total elimination of inherited diseases. Should we say yes and dive into this newfound approach? We must first morally consider its implications.

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FOR GENOME EDITING

Cystic fibrosis, sickle-cell anaemia and Huntington’s disease: these are just 3 out of over 10,000 known genetic disorders that have plagued mankind since the dawn of time. An abnormality in the genome often results in debilitating effects on the particular individual and this problem continues to persist over generations as a cure has yet to be found. Some may argue that treatments and therapies have developed substantially but isn’t prevention better than cure? The prospect of genome editing may well result in total elimination of chronic diseases as a whole.

Existing techniques such as preimplantation genetic diagnosis has enabled the identification and selection of the ‘best’ gamete to conceive a baby with desirable stipulations. However, would it not be more convenient to alter the gamete to achieve the same objective with the prospect of genetic optimisation? Genome editing will be more efficient as bioengineers are now capable of targeting the particular flawed gene without the need of tedious trial-and-error. The role of genome editing in the medical industry is boundless.

In a recent NHS report, the number of organ donors has shown a declining trend. There is an urgent need of a suitable alternative approach to organ transplantation and the prospect of a non-human organ donor alternative called xenotransplantation seems attractive. Recent research used a gene editing technique (CRISPR) to improve xenotransplantation and indicated positive findings which entail the possibility of a constant supply of organs engineered to be safer for recipients. Deaths from prolonged periods on the organ transplant waiting list may well be a problem of the past.

From a utilitarian point of view, the action taken should lead to the greatest happiness for the greatest number of people. One must ask, how do you define happiness? Happiness is the joy of parents knowing that their unborn child does not have any health problems. It is the joy of grandparents witnessing a healthy grandchild born into this world. As the saying goes, health is wealth. The loss of health is the loss of happiness. The recent decision made to legalise research on genetic editing procedures on embryos by the UK government and HFEA (Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority) will help bring us one step closer to practicing genetic editing in fertility clinics. This would eradicate chances of abortion of an unborn child suffering from genetic related complications. Couples will no longer be advised not to conceive for fears that their child might inherit a disease. This movement towards genetic editing would finally bring about a greater population with healthier lineage.

Given that the solution to most genetic disorders today are limited to coping with the disease through painstaking treatments, genetic editing deems to be the ultimate solution. Undoubtedly, we should continue pursuing genetic editing in the medical industry.

AGAINST GENOME EDITING

Are we now recklessly stepping further into the uncharted territories of the genome world? The realisation of genetic engineering itself has already provoked countless of legal and ethical issues and we have yet to slow down. Treatments and therapies have already existed to combat genetic diseases, showing promising results. In addition, indulgence into genetic engineering may pave way to exploitation which may well result in a science-fiction nightmare.

The ability to eradicate genetic diseases by editing the human germline has raised some ethical concerns. It could be fabricated to create offsprings with superior traits such as better memory and muscle enhancement, to name a few. Consider this scenario drawn up by George Church, a professor of Genetics at Harvard Medical School:

  1. Patients suffering from muscle atrophy diseases with good natured intent to engineer their embryo to prevent passing on the disease.
  2. Prospective, ego-centric parents desire strong-muscle gene so that their children will develop to become an Olympian.

Is this inherently a bad idea? Intuitively, this might create different classes among humans and lead to social issues. Applying Kant’s universality principle, the maxim “everyone has the right to edit their human germline” cannot be universalized as it is against most religious beliefs and more importantly, it is likely to create an uneven society. The tool to replace an undesirable trait with a superior one will discourage diversity in human, resulting in a negative effect as diversity has aided the survival of human race. It is the nature of humans to seek a competitive advantage over one another and with the power of editing genomes, the birth of ‘designer babies’ will not be far off the future. Moreover, the existence of an easy-to-use genome editing tool in recent events such as CRISPR forces us to confront the ethical concern once again. This will no doubt be detrimental to the effectiveness of regulation and international oversight.

By applying Kant’s 2nd categorical imperative: you should never treat human merely as a means to an end. Kant would rule against the use of human embryos in the process of achieving the aims of a disease-free society. On the other hand, existing techniques such as preimplantation genetic diagnosis which involves the selection of healthy embryos has already enabled parents with hereditary diseases to breed selectively without the need to edit the genome. So why is there a demand in genetic manipulation given that the effects of implementation are obscure? Additionally, couples with limited resources can resort to adoption, which is already a practice of norm in global population.

The consequences of genetic editing far outweigh the foreseeable beneficial qualities. For the sake of humanity, the best course of action is to leave the genome alone!

42: Yick Ying Siew, Kok Hau Sia, Ji Kin Ooi, Leonard Young

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8 thoughts on “HUMAN GENOME EDITING: SHOULD WE PLAY GOD?

  1. This is a great article shedding light on genetic engineering. Genome editing can indeed contribute significantly to the eradictaion and cure of many diseases that are prevalent in society today and extend our lifespan considerably longer. However with utilitarianism being the ethical question, if the aim of genome editing is to maximize good for everyone, will the results justify the means especially when the means exist?

    With this new technology, our reality could turn into a scene straight out of a science fiction movie. Although this technology is being created to be used with good intentions, people may be blinded by their own self interest which can lead to unfavourable situations. And if this technology gets commercialized (if it ever does), it can be turned into a commodity for the wealthy to obtain which can cause even more social inequality in a world where class mobility is already an issue.

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  2. This is a great article that sheds light on genetic engineering. Genome editing can indeed make a significant contribution to the eradication of many diseases prevalent in society, increase our lifespan considerably longer and can cure diseases caused by genetic mutations such as Alzheimer’s or in other cases heart disease as the human body is not perfect and is susceptible to faults. This new technology can create a utopia where no genetic abnormalities exist. However, with utilitarianism as an ethical consideration, if the ultimate aim of genome editing is to maximize good for everyone, will the results justify the means?

    With this new technology, our reality can transform into a scene out of a science fiction movie with our society being so ambitious. As much as the primary intention with this technology would be to help other people, people may get blinded by their own self interest which can create an undesirable situation. Also, if this new technology ever gets commercialised (for the sake of getting profit), it can be turned into a commodity which can only be easily accessed by the very upper financial class which can create even more social inequality in a society where class mobility is already an issue. We must all be better informed to be able to have more knowledge regarding human genome editing to be able to fully understand what scientists are trying to achieve and what they aren’t trying to accomplish.

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  3. One thing we humans possess is a great deal of morality compared to other unevolved species. We don’t let each other die as long as we have control, at least the majority of us will save a needy human. In some way that can be said that we are preventing the natural flow which is evolution and the saying of “The weak will get naturally eliminated while the strong survive”.

    With genetic engineering, we solve this problem but one must ask, should we be using our dwindling resources for this, when we could be doing much more? In the end it all comes down to morality, if we were to ignore the weaker and sick, we will be attacked by other humans through media and such. Also with our power, comes our greed. This genetic engineering for designer babies are huge gateways for profit in which we humans will fall victim too. It’s commercialized world after all.

    Genetic engineering is what we can do, but we did not question whether we should? Life would just have it’s way nonetheless, the strong will survive, the weak will die. Just whether you have the morality to let them die. This may seem cruel, but the truth is never good. But to be powerful enough to tamper with genetic engineering, we are playing god.

    “If god is all powerful, then he is not all good. If he is all good, then he is not all powerful”-Lex Luthor Jr, (Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice 2016)

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  4. Human genome editing goes far beyond helping one sick person. Ask parents of children with cystic fibrosis, sickle-cell anaemia and Huntington’s disease, would they have used this kind of technology if it had been available to them? If science and technology could bring about total elimination of inherited diseases and improve the quality of life, why not?

    However, there is a difference between trying to fix a defect and thus eliminating the severe genetic disease and manipulating reproductive cells to create designer babies – smarter, healthier and more beautiful. This new technology will eventually become a game for the rich, potentially creating “classes” between designer and non-designer babies and gaps in society.

    While I strongly support the use of human genome editing to correct mutations, with parents being able to select detailed physical traits and improve the intelligence of their children definitely crosses an unspoken line.

    Where should we draw the line?

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  5. Good comparison of the pros and cons of human genome editing. I’m however for the legalisation of genetic editing, although would say that genome editing should not lead to “designer babies” in the sense of not allowing enhancement of genes, rather would allow correction of errors in the genome. Everyone has the right to a healthier lifespan and better quality health span. The authors argued well with the use of Kantian ethics and using a utilitarian approach. The only question would be who would address the extent of the “correction” of genome and if it would be commercialised or only used in close-circuit monitored locations to ensure absence of malpractice. A good review nonetheless.

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  6. The discussions around whether human genome-editing has a future sparked ethical debate across the globe. First of all, it is very important to note that the main purpose of human genome editing is to eliminate harmful genetic conditions, or enhancing traits deemed advantageous, such as resistance to diseases.

    It will definitely be a disadvantage to individuals with bad inheritable conditions to end the human genome-editing project by saying that existing techniques such as preimplantation genetic diagnosis (PGD) is good enough to replace it. This is because hereditary diseases can be autosomal recessive (both parents carry faulty genes), which is a very common condition in which selective breeding will no longer work. Hence, it is very unfair for these individuals as their offspring will carry these defected genes and suffer from the same genetic conditions, which is every parent’s nightmare! As the saying goes, you will never understand until it happens to you. It is even more unethical for people not afflicted with such diseases to go against this project without giving full considerations to individuals with genetic diseases, who hope that scientists will very soon find a way to use the gene editor to fix mutations that cause genetic diseases.

    Furthermore, genome-editing technologies may offer a powerful approach to treat many deadly human diseases which had puzzled scientists for the past few decades to look for a cure. For example: HIV/AIDS, haemophilia, sickle-cell anaemia and several forms of cancer. So if the best course of action is to leave the genome alone and let God decide the future of mankind, what is the rationales for scientists to create vaccines for H1N1 and SARS, or to step up their efforts to look for cures for AIDS and cancer?

    “If we don’t play God, who will?” – James Watson

    But of course, this ability may also open the door to eugenics, where those with access to the technology could select for future generations based on traits considered to be desirable: eye, skin, hair colour, or height, simply known as ‘designer babies’. This is very different and greatly deviate away from the main objective of human genome project which makes it dangerous and ethically unacceptable. In my view, we can draw a strict line on this project by using laws and guidelines to ensure that human genome editing is only used for the purposes it was intended to and prevent unscrupulous parties to commercialise it.

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  7. I think laws and regulations never stopped people from doing what they want. Delayed at worst. With any new technologies, it will be open to abuse. For example, the LED light is an amazing success making drastic energy savings on the traditional light bulb. However, with lower energy bills, operators then purchase and install much more lighting on bill boards, on signs, everywhere! The result is that overall energy consumption for generation of lights actually increase! I think this is likely to happen with human genome editing. We cannot and should not let the fear of the unknown stop us. There will be disasters and insane people creating monstrosities. The goal is to then figure out how to monitor,regulate and provide humane conditions for the projects which did not do as intended. Only by achieving more knowledge can we attempt to regulate an industry which as profound consequences for human kind. Given to tools to become a more advanced race, one should stroll boldly forward with a strong moral and ethical character so when disasters strike, our humanity and compassion remains.

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  8. I think it is good that we are getting closer to eliminating genetic disorders and having one less thing to worry about in this world but in my opinion, a lot of it is hype right now, there are still a lot to be done before we can be sure that it works properly and nothing will go wrong. Take the xenotransplantation as an example, they might have found a way to eliminate the risk of virus infection but there is still the risk of rejection by the body, which is the biggest problem currently in any organ transplantation, even in human-to-human transplantation. They stated that they are trying to eliminate any genes that causes this rejection, which is good if they can do it, but there’s no telling what would happen to the organ. Would it still function as it normally would after all the gene editing done to it? I’m just saying not to get your hopes up just yet as most of the incredible things you read about might just be the media making things seem shinier than it really is, without looking at the whole picture.

    There is also the question of whether gene editing would be used to create designer babies. I think the question is not whether or not we would but whether or not we could. It is not the ethical problem that’s stopping people from doing it, but rather the lack of a reliable technique to do it. As jetpacksrule said in the previous comment, the law and regulations never really stopped people from doing what they want, if they have the means, power and money to do it. And these things can never really be separated from money and profits. Scientific discoveries would not be implemented and used without commercialisation and the backing of industries and investors. As long as we know how to edit gene reliably, there is no way of stopping people from doing it. So, if we are not ready or willing to deal with the problems that comes along with the advantages, we should stop doing it entirely before it is too late. But then again, what is there to stop people from continuing the work when the idea is already there.

    A good point made by the article is that of couples being able to adopt children. This is actually a great way to overcome the problem of not having children without all the risk that comes along with gene editing. There are a lot of children without parents who is in need of a home. What is stopping more people from adopting, in my opinion, is the idea that adopting is somehow different from having your own child. It isn’t, as far as I know. It’s all in people’s head. Would you rather risk something going wrong and passing on more defective genes rather than adopting a healthy child? If people can just overcome this idea of needing to have their own child no matter what, the genetic disorders would eventually cease to exist on its own, since there would be no one to inherit it.

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