In the not-so-distant future, humanity is still imperfect. But there is one thing we’ve gotten down pat: the ability to ensure that babies are always born with the best traits possible. You no longer need braces to achieve a bright, even smile, and life-threatening illnesses that keep us down now have all but disappeared. If this sounds familiar, then you may be a fan of the 1997 film Gattaca, an imagining of a eugenics-driven society and the “genetic discrimination” that might follow. The widespread institution of more human rights (and subsequent abandon of eugenics practices) following World War II have made it highly unlikely that Gattaca will ever be a reflection of our society in real life, but that isn’t to say the ability isn’t there. As far back as 1987, researchers have understood that potentially, with the right tools, our DNA – and thus, our genome – could actually be altered.
A quick refresher: DNA is a molecule containing the genetic information that encodes certain functions or features (like hair or eye color). These traits are stored in specific regions of DNA strands called genes, and it’s these genes that could potentially give us the godlike ability to alter a person’s features.
This is what was initially discovered back in 1987. At roughly the same time that year, researchers in Spain, Japan, and the Netherlands stumbled upon a repeating segment of DNA in certain bacteria that would later become known as “clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats,” or CRISPRs for short. These clustered parts of DNA are basically just repeating sequences of the bases that make up DNA, followed and preceded by spacer DNA – that is, DNA that doesn’t encode for anything.
What research has eventually discovered is that these CRISPR regions are essentially a part of a microbe’s defense mechanism, a “dictionary” of virus DNA that allows the microbe to quickly recognize its enemies based on previous encounters. Additionally, the microbes have other enzymes, called CRISPR associated proteins (Cas), that work alongside the CRISPR regions. If we’re thinking of the CRISPR regions as the strategy, then the Cas enzymes are the execution of that strategy on the battlefield. RNA molecules (which encode the genes in DNA) receive copies of the virus DNA from the CRISPR dictionary, and then drift through the cell with the Cas enzymes. If they encounter a virus, the RNA attaches to it, and the Cas enzymes are able to cut it in half, halting any replication.
“Good for the microbes,” you might say. “But how exactly does this relate to Gattaca?” Well, think about how this ability to find and then trim certain regions of DNA might be used. We could potentially engineer certain enzymes to find a certain gene – the gene that causes baldness, for example – and then cut it out of the DNA strand, creating a person who would likely never have to worry about losing his hair.
This level of manipulation is still very far from reality due in large part to the complexity concerning which genes express which traits. But as the techniques and our understanding of the process mature, it isn’t entirely out of the realm of possibility that we could eventually end up with an entire generation of intelligent, athletic, and attractive super-humans.
Just recently a team of Swedish scientists, led by developmental biologist Fredrik Lanner, successfully edited the genome of a viable two-day-old human embryo (donated by the IVF clinic in Sweden) for the first time. Lanner is primarily interested in learning how embryos develop and how that knowledge might help our treatment of diseases. “If we can understand how these early cells are regulated in the actual embryo,” he told NPR, “this knowledge will help us in the future to treat patients with diabetes, or Parkinson’s, or different types of blindness and other diseases.”
Besides the complexity of the science, the CRISPR system is also wildly inaccurate. But even if it wasn’t, and we could use it to cure disease or ensure certain positive traits, several new dilemmas arise. First, just because we can make these changes, should we? Second, what issues might we encounter concerning the future rights of people whose genes were edited? And third, is there any possibility that these “designer babies” would be treated differently in society?
In researching this article, I had the opportunity to speak with University of Oxford Professor of Practical Ethics Julian Savulescu, and Chris Gyngell, Marie Curie Research Fellow, about some of these concerns. According to them, the answer to the first question is yes – at least as long as the use is solely in pursuit of eventually being able to correct and prevent genetic disorders (like diabetes, heart disease, or schizophrenia, to name a few).
“Nature is not fair or equal,” they wrote in our correspondence. “Gene editing offers the opportunity to correct natural inequality. Where this improves people’s lives, increases their well-being, we should do it…We should correct the social determinants of “ill-being” but we should also, in principle, address the biological contribution.”
This kind of sentiment is common amongst researchers looking into the ethics surrounding gene editing. In an article in Nature, Edward Lanphier, president and CEO of Sangamo BioSciences and chairman of the Alliance for Regenerative Medicine, and his colleagues agreed that despite certain risks for future generations of gene edited humans, the benefits from using CRISPR to preemptively treat certain diseases would be plentiful.
But that still doesn’t account for the individual and societal repercussions that could affect individuals with edited genes. While Professor Savulescu and Gyngell stated that there is no issue of consent for the budding embryo (likening it to performing necessary heart surgery on an infant), they did hold that the consent of the parents is still important. However, we should aim to strike a balance between what the parents want and the well-being of the embryo and the person they will become. This balance would hopefully combat the “instrumentalizating of the child for the parents’ own interests or desires,” as Savulescu and Gyngell put it.
But what about the future life of that child? Would there actually be some stratification on the basis that certain people have perfected genes? Savulescu and Gyngell think not. “It is impossible to predict how this technology (or any other novel technology) will affect society in the long term,” they told me. “But it seems to us very unlikely to lead to these kinds of social problems.” They made a comparison to children who are being born now from in vitro fertilizations, pointing out that as a society we could have chosen to single out those children as “test tube babies.” But their point is that we haven’t, and part of that stems from being unable to distinguish from these IVF babies and babies that were naturally conceived. In addition to being undetectable, it’s seen as normal, and Savulescu and Gyngell contend that gene editing will become so widespread and intermeshed in our society that we would see it as nothing more than a kind of medical intervention. For them, the most pressing problems concern policy rather than ethics, emphasizing the importance of effective regulation to ensure that these technologies are used in morally acceptable ways.
“Many jurisdictions around the world lack regulations covering reproductive technologies,” they said. “Fertility clinics [could] be set up that offer customised gene edits that are not safe and harm children.”
There’s no doubt that the CRISPR/Cas system could have significant positive impact on human life, especially when it comes to treating diseases that would traditionally be incurable. In fact, it’s likely that the benefits would far outweigh any potential moral and ethical ramifications. “We should absolutely continue with the research,” Savulescu and Gyngell concluded. “Reproductive applications are a long way off, but we should be excited about any technology which offers us the chance of reducing suffering and disease.”
Featured image by MIKI Yoshihito.