Tailoring Our Genes for the Perfect Fit
Everything is ruined by people who take things too far. It’s a shame that everyone has their own definition of what “too far” is. Powerful technology is available to us that can edit human DNA. It’s called CRISPR-Cas9, and it has the ability to accurately edit our genes. CRSPR was discovered in 2012 and works by taking a female egg or a male sperm and then using the CRISPR system to edit targeted genes. After the egg or sperm has been edited, in-vitro fertilization (IVF) is used to plant the fertilized egg in a womb. The whole process is called germ-line engineering and it doesn’t just modify the DNA of the embryo, but actually changes the genes so they can be passed on to future generations. This has the potential to change the way we look at science and medicine from treating people with genetically fatal diseases, to changing something like hair color. This could be revolutionary but it is not without its risks. Since it is so new, there is a lot of controversy regarding whether it is safe to apply this technology to humans or that we are taking evolution too far into our own hands. There is definitely room in our future for genetically modified genes but it is too early to begin testing it on humans. The application of genetic engineering on humans should be limited and regulated because there is a high chance that it will lead to social inequality benefitting the wealthy, its effect on future generations is unknown, and while the potential for the prevention of genetic disease is very promising, there is still a long way to go in terms of research.
To start, if genetic engineering was made available to the public there would be a great chance that the wealthiest will be the first to have access to it. This would inevitably cause inequality between the rich and the poor. Ronald Bailey of the Reason Foundation writes in his article titled “The Moral Case for Designer Babies” that in-vitro fertilization (IVF) has a cost of about $20,000. This process in itself is already a good sum of money. Antonio Regalado adds to this in his article for MIT Technology review, “An in-vitro fertility procedure costs about $20,000 in the United States. Add genetic testing and egg donation or a surrogate mother, and the price soars toward $100,000.” These genetic improvements will only be available to wealthiest who can afford such a procedure. These modifications might not even be for the betterment of humanity, but for vain aesthetic purposes like eye color or skin color. As Thomas H. Murray puts it in his article in the journal of Science: “Preventing lethal diseases is one thing; choosing the traits we desire is quite another” (Murray). Treating genetic diseases is a pursuit that is worth testing and could reduce the suffering of many generations. Choosing the traits of your child based on your own perception of beauty does not serve a greater purpose for society. Regardless if it was genes for looks, preventing disease, or even intelligence; it would be the wealthiest that would be given the option first. In an article for the Washington Post, George Church writes that these improvements would accumulate to a small portion of society: those that can afford it. These traits would no doubt be noticeable between the different classes and could single out the poor and put emphasis on those with more desirable genes. Regalado writes “germ-line engineering would encourage the spread of allegedly superior traits.” Those with the traits might be deemed superior to those without and there is a great potential for a divide between society and even discrimination: first to those who have modified genes, then to those without as it becomes more common. As time goes on, the cost for modifying genes will go down and the traits being passed will balance out through reproduction. But before that happens there could be generations of in-balance between societies.
Another thing that is important to consider for genetically modified humans is what effects these genes might have on future generations. As of right now, the stance the American Medical Association has regarding germ-line engineering is that it should not be done because it could cause “unpredictable and uncertain results” as well as the fact that we don’t know what health effects future generations might run into due to germ-line engineering (Regalado). Our understanding of our own biology grows everyday but genetic engineering is still in its infancy. If we change one set of genes it might have an effect on another without our immediate knowledge of it. This could go generations without being noticed. In an article for the New York Times, Gina Kolata asserts that our understanding of gene interactions was minimal and that a baby who had its genes changed while it was an embryo, “could have unintended consequences that would be inherited by all of that person’s progeny.” These changes could potentially lie dormant for generations until a disease, or even a bad match from a partner, could trigger unwanted or even catastrophic results. Kolata goes on to say that this “makes it dangerous and ethically unacceptable.” There is a possibility that a sequence of modified genes have the right conditions to be targeted by an even more deadly disease. Church explains, “We already monitor many modern discoveries for long-term effects, and tools such as CRISPR should not be an exception.” He goes on to mention how in the past, health officials originally backed cigarettes and how the stroke and heart attack inducing painkiller “Vioxx” was only banned for its negative effects after 80 million people used it (Church). We should make sure CRISPR and other methods of genetic engineering are safe before we start using it on humans. These negative effects have the potential to be passed through generations of people. In an article for The Lancet, Bonnie Steinbock mentions that adding a certain gene to mice showed researchers an improved ability at solving the maze. It also made the mice extremely sensitive to pain (Steinbock). This shows how a positive change in one gene can lead to a negative effect in the other. It is extremely important that we understand how our genes interact with each other before we proceed. Even genes that are deemed negative now could potentially be useful later. “Lessons of history and evolution show we need diversity” explains Church, “We need immunological, metabolic, cultural, and mental diversity.” This means that it is extremely important for us to have a diverse set of genes. We should be careful which genes get altered and which ones don’t.
Probably most importantly, though, is that we need to continue research for genetic engineering. This technology has the potential change medicine forever but we need to be cautious for how it is used. As Steinbock points out, we may be able to give our children “genetic edges” and that might affect future generations for the better, “that possibility should not be dismissed out of hand.” In his article, Regalado spoke with Guoping Feng, a biologist at MIT’s McGovern Institute for Brain Research. Feng notes that CRISPR could potentially edit genes in a human embryo unpredictably, but also notes that, “such problems may eventually be ironed out, and edited people will be born.” We do not fully understand what could happen when genes are edited but only with continued research can we pave the way to a healthier human. The CRISPR technique still has its own problems, and Feng’s studies have shown that there are still some difficulties that need to be worked out. Feng notes the efficiency for CRISPR is around 40 percent, and only about 20 percent of the time is it able to make more exact changes like switching individual nucleotides (Regalado). More often than not, CRISPR does not work exactly as planned. When talking to Regalado about his research on Marmoset monkeys, Feng notes, “Only about half the embryos will lead to live births, and of those that do, many could contain a mixture of cells with edited DNA and without” Feng further explains, “If you add up the odds, you find you need to edit 20 embryos to get a live monkey with the version you want.”. Ideally you would want both copies to be edited with the desired genes. That would mean in human parents you would have to set aside about 20 female eggs to get the desired result, and even then it is not guaranteed that the egg chosen will lead to a live birth. Regalado also spoke with Rudolf Jaenisch; an MIT biologist who created the first gene-modified mice in the 1970s, who says attempts to edit human embryos is “totally premature.” As of right now, there are still too many unknowns to work out. CRISPR still needs to be studied and optimized before we can even think about using it on humans. For now, the testing should just be left on animals.
There are some who want to take a chance on this technology and begin its trials on humans. Werner Neuhausser, who works at Harvard’s Stem Cell Institute as well as the Boston IVF Fertility-Clinic network, thinks we should take that risk: “It was the same with IVF when it first happened,” Neuhausser says, “we never really knew if that baby was going to be healthy at 40 or 50 years. But someone had to take the plunge” (Regalado). The “plunge” was taken for In-vitro fertilization, but genetically altered babies pose a risk that could potentially affect multiple generations. Just because IVF didn’t end up posing any risks does not mean that altering our genes won’t either. We should be very careful with how we proceed with this technology. To deal with the issue of wealth inequality, Church posits that this can solved by passing a similar act as the “Orphan Drug Act” of 1983. This would distribute the cost throughout society and reduce it to make it more available to everyone in our country (Church). This would only work, though, for the countries that passed similar acts. There would still be other countries that don’t pass similar laws and there would still be inequality on a global scale. This would greatly affect the countries that can’t afford it. It is also pointed out that those with modified genes wouldn’t have any more effect on social inequalities than those that already exist such as bad schools and neighborhoods (Steinbock). The problem with this argument, though, is that bad neighborhoods and schools don’t have anything to do with your genes. What she implies is that existing causes for inequality would rule out further causes of inequality caused by gene enhancement.
Genetically modifying our future children could be a tremendous thing to happen for our society on a global scale, but we are not ready for that to happen just yet. Due to the high costs involved with genetic engineering, a new level of social inequality could arise, benefitting those wealthy enough to afford such procedures. It could be a long time before it balances it out, and it is a problem that should be considered. Genetic engineering is also a new field in science and medicine and its effect on future generations and its long term consequences are still unknown. We should be careful with how we proceed with this powerful technology. That being said, the prevention of diseases is very promising. We should continue to research this technology before we use it on humans because there is still a long way to go before we perfect this technology and the risk no longer outweighs the reward.
Bailey, Ronald. “The moral case for designer babies: should parents be allowed to know if their fetus will get Alzheimer’s?” Reason June 2014. Academic OneFile. Web. 9 May 2016.
Church, George. “Eight questions to ask before human genetic engineering goes mainstream.” Washington Post 3 Mar. 2016. Academic OneFile. Web. 9 May 2016.
Kolata, Gina. “Chinese Scientists Edit Genes of Human Embryos, Raising Concerns”. The New York Times. 23 Apr. 2015. Web. 10 May 2016.
Murray, Thomas H. “Stirring the Simmering ‘Designer Baby’ Pot.” Science 343.6176 (2014): 1208. Web. 4 Apr 2016
Regalado, Antonio. “Engineering the Perfect Baby”. Technology Review. MIT Technology Review. 5 Mar. 2015. Web. 4 Apr 2016.
Steinbock, Bonnie. “Designer Babies: Choosing our Children’s Genes.” The Lancet 372.9646 (2008): 1294-5. Web. 4 Apr 2016