Gene editing is one of the most controversial scientific breakthroughs in modern history.
This week a Chinese scientist was forced to pause a clinical trial amid global outcry over its ethical limits. But what is gene editing?
RT takes a look at what exactly gene editing entails, why it could benefit people most at risk of disease – and how it could also spell the beginning of the end.
What is gene editing?
Gene editing is a relatively new technology that allows scientists to rewrite DNA by correcting ‘bad’ genes or adding new ones.
It has been used to treat children that were predisposed to serious genetic illnesses or incurable cancer, as well as HIV patients.
The Crispr-Cas9, invented six years ago, is the leading molecular tool in gene editing.
It allows doctors to zone in on a specific region in a organism’s genetic code and effectively disable a gene.
What are the pros and cons for our health?
Of course, the excitement surrounding gene editing, and overarching pro in the debate, is its potential to save people who would otherwise likely inherit a terminal or debilitating illness. It has already been used to modify people’s immune systems to fight diseases.
Genetic disorders ranging from the inconvenient to the fatal can be passed down through the generations.
Not only can gene editing eliminate a child’s predisposition to cystic fibrosis, cancer or HIV, it can also save their children’s children’s children’s children... you get the picture.
However, as a relatively new scientific breakthrough, it’s important to know that the long-term effects of gene editing have yet to be determined.
Gene editing can also affect the patient’s sperm or egg cells, meaning complications or side effects could also affect future generations.
Furthermore, off-target edits are a dangerous common problem where healthy genes (or crucial regulatory DNA) are impacted by the editing process.
What are the pros and cons morally?
Morally, the question of gene editing is very much up in the air. The debate rages on over how much science should influence man’s physical future, and if such extraordinary advances will remain out of the reach of the average – or poorer – person.
This week, a Chinese scientist announced he had conducted a human trial on embryos before the process was categorically proven to be safe.
He Jiankui claims he successfully edited the genes of twin girls whose father is HIV positive, but was forced to pull the breaks after authorities ordered a probe into his trials.
Over a hundred Chinese researchers signed a statement dubbing the experiment “crazy.”
Darren Griffin, Professor of Genetics at the School of Biosciences in the University of Kent, told RT of his criticism of Jiankui’s work, saying: “In a world where scientists, by and large, try to be aware of ethical and social issues surrounding the work that we do, this report takes us back to the Stone Age.”
One key moral element concerns the passing down of side-effects after gene editing is carried out on a foetus or child – the treatment can affect their later parenting options, without their initial consent to undergo the process themselves.
There is also the risk of gene editing turning into a futuristic form of eugenics, in which the decisions on who can or cannot have children are taken out of people’s own hands entirely.
In his last work before he passed away, Stephen Hawking predicted gene editing would lead to a superhuman race within this century.
He anticipated that the temptation to create smarter and healthier humans, or so-called ‘designer babies’, will be too much for the rich, who will eventually all but illimitate “unimproved humans.”
Griffin says that ethical concerns should always be a fundamental part of such medical developments.
“Scientists cannot be seen to be trying to forge ahead in the absence of ethical constraint.
An international treaty on embryo research is now an absolute priority to prevent this happening again,” Griffin explained.
“Gene editing of embryos holds great promise for a range of issues, if dealt with in a responsible manner, and within an appropriate ethical framework.”