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article imageOp-Ed: Inheritable Genetic Modifications for humans? It’s here, now

By Paul Wallis     Mar 20, 2015 in Science
Berkeley - It sounds like a eugenicist’s dream. The ability to pass on genetic modifications to generations of humans, called “genome editing”, is a mix of fabulous science and hideous risks.
It could be a saviour against disease, and a horrible weapon against humanity. There are no simple issues here. It's a tough issue, and it just gets tougher.
Genome editing (aka genome engineering) is the manipulation of a genome to alter DNA structures and specific genes. The theory is that genetic modifications to the “germ line” (inherited genes) can be passed on to future generations.
The problem is that scientists don’t trust it. Even the developers of the techniques, notably the pioneer researcher Jennifer A. Doudna of Berkeley, have serious reservations. They say that while the U.S. has regulations in place, other nations don’t. Rogue research could be real trouble, and hard to deal with.
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Biologists are asking for a moratorium on further developments in this field. It’s not a hard and fast rule, and doesn’t have the force of law. It’s a voluntary abstention from experiments. This approach has worked in the past, but genome editing is a very new ball game, with big stakes.
There are risks. The remodeling of DNA is complex, and mistakes happen. The results can be varied and unpredictable. The problem with this new approach is that modifying the germ line also means that the modifications will continue to the next generations.
For and against
For genetic editing
In this case, there’s much to gain, and to lose. The theory at this stage is in its infancy, and the techniques are very new. This science is so new even the short term ramifications are basically being discovered as they happen.
The case for genome engineering includes some major benefits which are unarguably priceless in their own right:
Treatments to eradicate inheritable diseases, permanently. These diseases affect tens of millions of people and cost billions per year to manage, however badly.
Preventing deformities and birth defects which cause major life disadvantages. Another hideous, expensive, and barely treatable problem, and a serious issue with an expanding population.
Eradicating classic inherited risk of diseases like cancer and heart disease. Those two statistically account for most of the human race.
Anti-aging treatments? Not yet on the table, but aging is a medical condition with a range of characteristics which may be susceptible to genetic manipulation.
It's not at all unlikely that corporate and other interests will pursue research advantages outside the US. That puts the US and other Western nations in catchup mode, not a good place to be in major science.
There is absolutely no doubt this could be a true medical Renaissance for the world.
Against genetic editing
The case against genome editing is much more complex, and very tricky:
Genome edits could include faults which would also be passed on.
Genome edits are likely to become obsolete as the techniques evolve. The inheritance could become a disadvantage.
Abuse of editing techniques to produce “master races” of whatever kind. Not as stupid as it sounds, and another issue, gene weapons targeting racial DNA, has been around for at least a few decades. The inheritance could become an arms race.
Pharmaceutical interests. The same people who currently gouge anyone who needs a prescription could corrupt the process. Gene editing for high cash values is hardly out of the question, given Big Pharma’s apparent desire to make the world as sick as possible just to sell medicine to it. Imagine a genetic line of beauty queens as a “cash crop”.
Cloning by stealth — this less obvious issue is based on the ban on human cloning. Why not get around it by gene editing to get the parts you want? It’s not even a form of cloning, but could produce some interesting options. Your genetically modified donor could be a big plus.
Weaponization of gene engineering. The super soldier of the future isn’t going to come from Wal Mart. He’ll come from enhancement techniques combined with hard tech. In theory, you could produce super soldiers pretty easily. This would be the soldier caste for the most inhumane of wars, and not a great social asset if they took over.
What if a gene edit turns out to create susceptibilities to disease? The early GM potatoes couldn’t even survive in the outdoors. Every mold on Earth came after them. How do you fix a lethal condition applying to millions of people?
Discrimination against either GE or non-GE people? It could happen. The creation of distinctly separate groups of people, on any basis, let alone heredity, has historically been less than kind to those groups. The relationship with a genetically modified group could be tense, to say the least. Perceived advantages would make them resented. Perceived abnormalities could make them hated. They’d have to react, and another wonderful clash of humanity would be the result.
(It really is nice to think we came all the way from the trees to simply bitch about each other, isn’t it? )
Ethics? What ethics?
While the scientists’ reservations are commendable, the environment in which those ethics are trying to apply themselves is 100 percent untrustworthy. The days of the noble ideal have given way to the sleaze of Wall Street and shills in suits. I’ve been asking for years why scientists aren’t more wary of the risks of abuse of their discoveries, largely because the people who abuse those discoveries aren’t exactly great people.
The ethics of the market have very little to do with objectivity. They work on the value of deals, and market positioning. The patenting of disease genes, a truly unethical practice, is still rattling around. Take that one step further to the patenting of core gene editing, and you can easily see how the rot can enter the ethics. Money talks loud, people listen, and it never shuts up when it’s trying to reproduce itself. That’s one genetic lineage which knows no ethics at all.
The arguments, unfortunately, are still evolving in both directions, and as the technology progresses, will widen. Nobody knows what a generation of GE people would be. Do we condemn the future as usual to a series of conflicts, based on our own ignorance, or do we get it right for a change?
The best thing about this issue is that finally, someone is challenging the problems before they happen. That, at least, is a huge step forward.
This opinion article was written by an independent writer. The opinions and views expressed herein are those of the author and are not necessarily intended to reflect those of
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