Genetic Engineering: Flawless or Fatal?

Ever since DNA was first isolated in 1869, the concept of gene editing has existed. Yet as practical methods progressed further, research stagnated due to the need of highly specialised geneticists and equipment. Development of the economically viable CRISPR/CAS9 tool has opened major discussions around the globe concerning its ethical implications. Scientific advancement should not be completely impeded, neither completely free. A middle ground approach should be encouraged to influence expansion of humanity.

Positive Ethical Impacts of CRISPR

The most obvious use for CRISPR technology is curing patients with genetic related diseases. Research has found up to 3,000 diseases[1] which show limited success of drug treatments: e.g. Trisomy 18[2] affects 1 in 6000 infants, with a 90% mortality rate.  In 2015, CRISPR technology saved the life of Layla Richards[3]. She had leukemia, but became the first person to have her life saved by gene editing. Her parents, who refused palliative care, took on the experimental treatment to extend Layla’s life[4]. Harris argues, “as long as a life is worth living – according to the person [themselves] – we have a powerful moral imperative to save the life and thus to develop and offer life extension therapies.”[5] The fear of adverse effects is sentencing these infants to doom and inflicting grief onto their parents which can all be prevented with this technology.

Another capability of CRISPR technology is increasing an individual’s intellectual capabilities to deal with global issues. Bostrom[5] argues that problem-solving skills are always a factor in tackling complications; it follows that intellectual enhancement with this technology could be used to find cures for terminal diseases, solving global energy crises and improving global medical health. With a rapidly increasing global population, CRISPR also has the potential to aid human adaptability when considering extra-terrestrial environments. Szocik argues, “human beings are not evolutionarily adapted to colonised cosmic environments[6]. However, artificial acceleration of evolution may be necessary if the human species migrated to extra-terrestrial environments. At the current rate of global population growth, and an ever growing space exploration industry, this use of CRISPR is likely to be needed in the future.

Finally, CRISPR technology has the potential to decrease the rate of violent crime. Criminals with violent tendencies, which relate to mental health, could undergo treatment to alter the genes responsible for these characteristics. Currently, 50% of prisoners are reconvicted within a year of release[7]. Treatment would allow violent criminals to reintegrate into society, and would protect the public from this prevented violence.

These possibilities demonstrate the overwhelmingly positive impact CRISPR could have. The advancement of scientific fields could lead to ground-breaking discoveries- e.g. cures for diseases – and solutions for global issues. The impact on society in general is significant because the technology presents an opportunity to greatly increase the safety of the population. Could any humanitarian society completely reject the advancement of humanity that CRISPR offers?

 

Negative Ethical Impacts of CRISPR

Although CRISPR has huge positive potential, the major question remains where should we draw the line? In conjunction with all the possible good it could accomplish, one cannot escape the fear of what could arise from playing ‘god’, giving humans power over nature and controlling the speed of our own evolution. ‘Designer babies’ with desirable genetic characteristics could become the norm as imperfections are eradicated [8], but many would argue it is imperfection, attributed to uniqueness that makes us human [9]. Self-discovery and natural selection could become less apparent as people start dictating the lives of the unborn, possibly inadvertently pushing society into a more authoritarian state.

The short-term view that it could liberate one from disease and worry, may blind people from seeing the long-term consequences, initiating a “slippery slope” of overexcitement, leading to irresponsibility [10]. The benefits must outweigh the risks, yet with such a lack of knowledge in this area, in addition to the stake of human life; much greater significance must be applied to the risks [11]. As a result, soon after CRISPR’s viability was proven, scientists called for a temporary moratorium on human genome edits [12]. The worry being that mistakes could be made with germ-line (egg/sperm/embryo) genetic modification, accidentally causing a new disease or mutation, which could be passed down for generations triggering irreversible changes to humanity.

In addition to the positives mentioned about life extension and intellectual improvement, detrimental problems could arise in the form of unfair allocation of procedures. The monetary wealth and influence of the so-called ‘elites’ would give them the opportunity to bypass the laws of the masses for selfish gain, as they have done all too much in the past. An ex-chairman of the US President’s Council on Bioethics, Leon Kass, viewed life extension as a childish and narcissistic wish incompatible with devotion to posterity [13]. It is this perspective that seeds fear of growing inequality for present and future generations, when considering the relative egotistical nature of people in power. Though one can argue that it isn’t individual’s egocentricity that is the main cause for alarm, but rather the nationalistic viewpoint of countries to look out for their own interest, made even more evident by the recent election of President Trump whose ‘America First’ victory speech emphasized this mind-set.

It has been rumoured that countries like the USA and China are on their way to testing gene editing of soldiers to make “super soldiers” [14]–[16]. It is important that under the pressure of fear, instigated by advancement of one nations army over another’s, world leaders do not rush the growth of genetic engineering. This could cause an arms race leading to worldwide unrest [17]. Thus, it is evident that even in the right hands, combined with naivety, it could have disastrous effects.

Conclusion

Although it has been argued that this is natural evolution for such an intelligent species, something with such an irreversible influence could be rushed, causing unforeseeable consequences. Transparency and open discussion are required for careful systematic advancement [10]. Research and implementation should be monitored by a globally unified committee, and strong jurisdictions should be encouraged amongst individual nations.

References

[1]      D. B. T. Cox, R. J. Platt, and F. Zhang, “Therapeutic genome editing: prospects and challenges.,” Nat. Med., vol. 21, no. 2, pp. 121–131, Feb. 2015.

[2]      Herndon Jaime, “Fatal Genetic Diseases.” 2015.

[3]      Cancer Research UK, “CRISPR gene editing: new chapter in cancer research or blot in the ethical copybook?” 2017.

[4]      Great Ormond Street Hospital Children’s Charity, “World first use of gene-edited immune cells to treat ‘incurable’ leukaemia.” 2015.

[5]      J. Harris, Enhancing evolution : the ethical case for making better people. Princeton University Press, 2007.

[6]      K. Szocik, K. Lysenko-Ryba, S. Banaś, and S. Mazur, “Political and legal challenges in a Mars colony,” Space Policy, vol. 38, pp. 27–29, Nov. 2016.

[7]      The Conversation, “Hard evidence: does prison really work?” .

[8]      BBC, “Gene editing: Ethical issues ‘should be discussed,’” BBC Health, 2016.

[9]      OSHO, “Everyone is Unique,” Complete Wellbeing, Jul-2007.

[10]    B. D. Baltimore et al., “A prudent path forward for genomic engineering and germline gene modification,” Science (80-. )., vol. 348, no. 6230, pp. 36–38, 2015.

[11]    E. Rodriguez, “Ethical Issues in Genome Editing using Crispr / Cas9 System,” J. Clin. Res. Bioeth., vol. 2016, no. 2, pp. 7–10, 2016.

[12]    R. Stein, “Scientists Urge Temporary Moratorium On Human Genome Edits,” National Public Radio. 2015.

[13]    L. Kass, Toward a More Natural Sceince: Biology and Human Affairs. New York City: Free Press, 1985.

[14]    J. Murphy, “The US and China are racing to create superior super soldiers,” SOFREP News, 2016. .

[15]    D. Gayle, “Army of the Future,” Daily Mail, 2012.

[16]    J. D. Moreno, “DARPA on your mind.,” Cerebrum, vol. 6, no. 4, pp. 91–9, 2004.

[17]    G. J. Annas, “The Prospects and Perils of Human Genetic Engineering,” in The Man on the Moon, Immortality, and Other Millennial Myths, vol. 1, 2000, p. 773.

Group 56: Yung Lian Tang, Samuel Stiles, Thomas Milnes, Thomas Butterfield

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28 thoughts on “Genetic Engineering: Flawless or Fatal?

  1. I think you’ve laid out some good points here and I agree with the idea of genetic enhancement with the aim of curing disease and increasing people’s health. However when you start using genetic enhancement to make people smarter or stronger or capable of habitising new planets then it starts going too far. All that will happen is the rich will use CRISPR and become even more ‘elite’ and the other 95% of the population will not have the money to do so. I can see how CRISPR, when not being used for medical purposes, will only work to increase the divide between the upper and lower classes.

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    1. The same point about “the rich people being about to afford it and not the other 95%” can be said about private health care, getting a good lawyer, private education and loads more. There has always been a bias in society for that, I agree it shouldn’t happen, but it does. I think if this technology does get implemented even just for medical purposes it will be the rich 5% with private healthcare that can afford it.

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    2. Yes I completely agree that it shouldn’t be used for enhancements due to the divide it would cause, however this is almost unavoidable. If the technology is available, there is always a price, and that is no different here. The richest 5% of people in the world, will no doubt be the first people taking advantage of the more extreme uses for technology like CRISPR. The only way to retain CRISPR from uses like these, is a unified global committee as mentioned, however who’s to say even a committee can be trusted. If someone is put in charge of eternal life enhancements (obviously an extreme case), who’s to say they won’t take advantage of the enhancements themselves.

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  2. I enjoyed your article and thought it provided a nice introduction into some of the ethical aspects associated with gene editing. You are right to highlight the potential of CRISPR to cure many diseases, but it’s worth pointing out that the only reason this is possible is because we know what healthy looks like, as the healthy variants are also present in the population. So I think that although relevant to the future, your points about artificial evolution, particularly intelligence, are somewhat irrelevant in the present, because modern genetics is a long way off being able to design its own genes from scratch. As for your points about prisoners, I think this begins to verge into scary eugenics territory and is probably not something most people would be comfortable with.
    I also agree with your argument that beyond curing disease that directly contributes to morbidity and mortality, it is our imperfections that make us human, and importantly, as you reduce the gene pool through design you make a species more susceptible to genetic disorders. Good point about how CRISPR might contribute to an increasingly class based society, I think this is a possibility, but probably one that is better addressed through politics than it is through science. Overall I enjoyed this article and would encourage people to engage with it, as I also think that ‘Transparency and open discussion’ are vital for future issues such as gene editing and CRISPR.

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    1. Thanks for your comment Rob. If this technology gets developed to the point where we could make our own genes it could be used for “cleansing” purposes like reducing criminals violent genes, I agree people would not be comfortable with that as it gives authorities too much control over who we are, whereas the people should be controlling who the government are.

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    2. Yes there is definitely some speculation here as some things are far in the future, but the chances of them eventually becoming something more than speculation is not unrealistic. With the speed of technological advancements in science at present, gene design may seem further away than it is.

      On second thoughts however I do agree with your point about prisoners, I think you are right in saying that many people would not be comfortable with this idea and it would probably be a concept shut down if it ever became possible.

      I also agree with class divide being something to be addressed by politics, impeding the advancement of science is unlikely to happen and also unnecessary. As we both agree, discussion is very important for addressing further issues when they come about, and I don’t think limiting scientific development is the way to control these issues.

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  3. There are some very valid points raised here but I think you have overlooked one of the most important potential uses for CRISPR gene editing; that of addressing the global food security crisis. Recently, CRISPR editing has been used to bypass the pollination stage of fruit production in tomatoes, generating seedless fruit in both a fraction of the time of conventional fruit production and also without the need for pollinators. The combined effects of climate change and global population growth predict an increase in food demand of 30-50% by 2050 and degradation of arable land, declines in fresh water availability and deterioration of climatic conditions will likely exacerbate this. Evidently there needs to be a ‘greener’ revolution and I personally believe gene editing is one way of doing this. We have already edited the genome of many ancient crop plants such as wheat or maize, their wild type plants have seeds (the nutritional part that we eat) only a fraction the size of what we grow today, today’s gene editing processes are merely an accelerated version of the selective breeding our ancestors have been doing for centuries. Further to this, there have been meta analyses on GM crops that conclude there are no to little foreseeable negative health implications of eating GM food. I think it is very easy to argue against gene editing in our well-fed western societies where we are little impacted by the food security crisis, I think it far more unethical that we restrict the advancement of science in this area at the expense of those starving in LEDCs.

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    1. I agree we do not have as much a valid opinion in MEDCs on GM food as people in LEDCs. I still think there needs to still be a measure of control over all research in the CRISPR field although it should certainly be less restrictive regarding areas of research of obvious benefit like increasing food production. Personally I think GM food is a more worthwhile area of research as progress is not halted by an ethical argument having to test the gene editing directly on humans as with some other areas like “designer babies”. I agree therefore we will see the benefits of crispr on plant based food sooner than anything else.

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    2. From an ethical standpoint, GM food is getting more and more popular in the global community because as you said, the pros greatly outweigh the cons. The likelihood therefore is that with time, GM is more and more likely to become more ethically acceptable. I personally believe that GM food one day will be something people take for granted, whereas I’m not sure using gene editing to cure illness will be as quickly accepted.

      I agree strongly with the fact people are generally naive and ignorant from MEDCs in terms of GM food. But I also think, something that helps the poorer people in the world in numbers like GM food, is something a lot more likely to be accepted than gene editing of soldiers or people to make them smarter for example. Therefore I think these things are more ethically in question, which is why the article has tended more towards these more questionable uses of gene editing.

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  4. A great article, discussing the different implications of genetic engineering. I agree with your conclusion that there is need for a governing body to monitor and manage the rules on how generic engineering is use but how is the line drawn? – reducing diseases is something that we actively do however I feel that generic engineering is not the right way to go about it, as once we start modifying genes, where do we stop and the lines will start to get blurred and head down the path of designer babies etc. If there are other ways to cure diseases, I feel these should be preferred over gene modifications.

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    1. I disagree, I think every approach should be considered to curing disease, I think CRISPR has a high potential of curing many genetic based diseases and research should be pursued. There obviously needs to be an element of control over the technology researched, although I think this should be mostly unrestricted when regarding research purely focused on curing disease. I do not think it is ethical to halt research on CRISPR in search of other cures when CRISPR looks highly potential as people will die in the future when the cure may have already existed.

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    2. I do agree to this comment to a certain extent, I do not think it’s so easy as to say “well we will just have a committee to control everything”, because as you said, where do we draw the line. I do not however agree that the line will be drawn before the curing of diseases, nor should it. I think having the ability to cure diseases, to this point not possible would be a magnificent thing. And I think that a multi-billionaire having a designer baby is not a good enough reason to stop millions of people being cured from disease. Also, how long are we willing to look for other cures of diseases other than gene editing? Some diseases may have no other cure.

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      1. Yes it is true that people perceived that genetic editing as the miracle cure for all diseases and will all start attempting to treat minor things like flu. But other medical treatments like surgeries requires the patient to be subjected to the skills of the medical officer, which will vary achieving different success rate and risks.

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  5. First class article! Whilst I have always been pro-genetic engineering in terms of crop development and potential human use, the negatives of this technology and its relationship to political and financial power were not immediately apparent to me – great job. Do you think that current regulatory practices may struggle to adapt to the challenges of regulating science which acts on such a fundamental level, where effects can be fully systemic, inheritable and invisible for several generations or even lifetimes? From a human perspective, the testing of current pharmaceuticals is already prohibitive in terms of cost and time – testing generational effects would surely require even greater investments in time and money, making potential approaches unavoidably expensive and therefore unavoidably classist? Is there also not an issue (in terms of engineering the human genome) with existing pharmaceuticals, which have only been tested and approved in non-edited humans? In terms of the morality of the whole thing, it’ll be interesting to see how the world’s major religions react to advances in genetic engineering – might they see it as humanity playing with gods design? And on a another morality note, the generational impact of genetic engineering in humans would presumably give rise to some serious consent issues from the perspective of engineered offspring who can’t give an opinion on their genetic alterations. Finally, given the unfortunate proclivity amongst many for racial and national biases, might engineering advances bring prejudice to an even deeper biological level? Cheers for this, it was a great read!

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    1. Even if the person directly receiving the genetic treatment wants it, it is not ethical for those genes they have “brought” or had for medical purposes to be carried by their children since the child has no say in it.

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    2. Some fantastic thought provoking points here, so thanks for the comment!

      I think current regulatory practices would not so much “adapt” but probably have to entirely change. Luckily, due to the time we have before these things would be more apparent, it is possible to think about these things sooner rather than later, so the adapting or changing process will not be a sharp.

      The point about religion is a really good point something I completely agree with, the chances of people agreeing with counteracting God is not going to be a smooth ride.

      The point about altered offspring not having their say is something I haven’t yet thought about, yes the likelihood is, this is even more of a reason for ethical issues on designer babies to never be passed. However I also think, that for the richest people who decide they want to invest in having a designer baby, who’s to say they can’t just keep it confidential and deny it ever happening. It may never reach the neighbor’s ear, never mind the media. With enough money, we could see corruption, and a black market of gene editing (although obviously this is an extreme thought).

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  6. I really like this article, some good points and a balanced judgement!
    I would say however that with the knowledge of human genetics today, it is impossible to suddenly assume that CRISPR is the answer to everything and it can achieve anything and everything; positive or negative. With the different things that influence genes, their environment and the transcriptional process; there needs to be a much greater understanding, before the race to edit genes first gets out of hand and someone claims they have a cure for cancer, when actually in reality it wouldn’t work.
    Genetics are delicate things, and although I am 100% behind the use of such technology for good reasons like curing disease, it would only be playing with fire if people did not completely know what they were doing, something that could happen with the worlds current media.

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  7. Unfortunately, I think that although curing diseases such as cancer would be a step forward for humanity. I think the ethical implications and the risk factor of genetic engineering is too high for this to ever take off. I don’t think personally, that curing diseases is where genetic engineering would end, the technology would snowball and the richest people will soon be making themselves superior using the technology.
    Also I do not agree with this being natural evolution for humanity, and I think artificially evolving humans is not something that could ever run smoothly with the negative implications that would undoubtedly arise from tempering with human genetics.

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    1. The nature of evolution for the species to adapt to a change in environment, what are we going to do if the technology needed to survive is not developed yet? Surely this would point to the available engineering solution where it only needs to be further studies and refined. I agree that the potential that it will be monopolised by the rich and powerful, however what is its the choice between this an human extinction, I hardly think many will choose the latter.

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  8. I think getting rid of disease is the main discussion here because it seems like it has less social effects than things like enhancements. For example, curing diseases has less of an effect over things like separating the rich from the poor. I do believe however we would need to regulate what gets cured and what not. Life threatening diseases should be targeted, but how about less dangerous things, hay fever, arthritis etc. If we start curing everything who knows what impact that will have on society and strain it would put on health services. Would it make everything else redundant? If everyone’s eyes are perfect then there will be no more opticians, or if everyone’s skin is perfect there will be no more dermatologists.

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  9. I think that designer babies, super soldiers and other human enhancements are completely over the line, it’s one thing helping people recover from terminally ill disease and bringing them back to their original healthy state, but artificial enhancing people’s genetics is something not to be tampered with due to the lack of knowledge in this area of biology.
    I do, however, think that genetically modified food should be something we as a race focus on first alongside treating illness. Removing illness and food shortages are both things that will improve the welfare of humanity as opposed to super soldiers and designer babies. I think the fear of these things creeping into society is dangerous, people begin to become unhappy about genetic engineering, consequently halting further scientifically advancement.
    Overall though, nice article to read!

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  10. Although I think that the technology should be used to cure illness, I think there needs to be major guidelines put in place before we see CRISPR introduced. Especially due to the consequences that could be faced if something went wrong. Trials and tests must be undertaken straight away before CRISPR should become available to people.
    Also, I don’t think it’s completely possible to fully regulate these things, even with a global committee and open discussion. All it takes is this technology getting into the hands of the wrong person and a great uproar could be triggered.

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    1. Thanks for your comment.

      Yes it will be definitely not possible to fully regulate such especially with the cost of this technology going down anyone would minimal level of expertise would be able to do it. Nevertheless strict regulations with harsh penalties should always be in place as a deterrent to those attempting to cross the line.

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  11. Personally, I think this IS humanities next step in evolution, I would not even to go as far as to call it artificial. With a planet slowly becoming overpopulated, I think that by the time CRISPR technology has come around, the space travel argument will become more of a reality.
    I don’t think this can be regarded as playing God, it is just the next step. Think about organ transplants and plastic surgery, both do things that could be targeted by CRISPR, just a lot worse. I think there will obviously ethical issues surrounding this, however I don’t think a good enough reason to stop these advancements is because of religion or fear.

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    1. Hi Anon thanks for your comment, I think that the fear of the so called ‘artificial’ evolution come from the fact that we might not be perceived as humans after going through all these genetic alterations and enhancement. I agree that the technology should not be hindered by these reasons but rather guided by it. If the ethical issues are openly discussed and guidelines are laid out I don’t understand the need to completely stop the development

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  12. I would agree on the perspective of curing disease, but under the consent of parents and the disease must be some kind of life burden. From religion point of view, it might be the fate of someone, but no one deserves to suffer more especially upon being born.

    Mordifying an extraordinarily intelligent mutant is definitely going too far away on trying to play “God”.

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  13. We are the only species who has the ability to control our own evolution but it doesn’t mean we should have free reign to do so. Preventing or repairing genetic disease has a place but cosmetic enhancement is surely a step too far – look at the problems designer dogs have, designer babies would surely result in the same. Who decides what is better anyway? Would you trust a committee? Would the human have a choice if armies were modified to be stronger, faster braver? And then there is the issue of commercial pressures.
    Leave well alone and celebrate our differences – it is what makes us human.

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