Last week in Washington D.C., scientists from around the world met to discuss where or not to use new, cutting-edge gene editing techniques to alter the DNA of embryos. The stakes are very high because any editing done that early in development would be considered a germ-line modification, one that will be incorporated into egg and sperm cells and then passed down to future generations. So any genetic engineering done that the embryonic stage will affect not just that embryo, but his or her children, grand children and great-grandchildren.
Many of the scientists at this meeting are concerned. We should all be. Not only are we just now barely understanding how complex human genetics really is, but these proposed changes to the human germ-line, even if for a good purpose, may resonate for generations to come.
A good portion of researchers agree that we should have a voluntary moratorium on the editing of DNA in human embryos. The risks are just too great. Instead they propose we use these techniques to cure disease in a somatic fashion – treating individual patients in the cells that need it and in a way that will not be inheritable. This is a smart approach, where we can benefit from the technology to treat disease, but eliminate any risk of unforeseen side effects to further generations.
Of course there are those who want to move forward, disregarding the safety of future human beings. Sir Mark Walport, chief scientific advisory to the U.K. government, thinks genetically engineering embryos is something the Britain should pursue. The British are already making children from three-genetic parents, so making human embryos with specific edits to their genomes is not that much farther down the road.
Walport told the Telegraph:
“Is it a generically a good thing or not? It’s a silly question. You need to ask for what particular gene, for what purpose, and for what potential benefits and risks.
“It’s absolutely clear that more research is needed. We need to know you are modifying the gene you want to and you aren’t modifying other things as well, whether this is a magic bullet or whether there will be off-target effects.
“But are there circumstances where that might be acceptable I think many people would say that there are.”
Here is the problem genetically engineering embryos even to fix a genetic disease. The research requires the manipulation and destruction of human embryos. Many embryos will not survive. Many more will be discarded. The ones deemed healthy enough for gestation will be monitored carefully while in the womb and will likely be aborted if there are any abnormalities. Any children that are born will have to watched carefully in case any unforeseen side effects develop later on in life. And the health of their children and grand-children will also need to be monitored.
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It is a lovely idea – fix genetic disease in a family for generations. But to achieve that goal, there will have to be human beings sacrificed on the altar of science.
There is a better and safer option. We can use these techniques to treat individual patients, one at a time. This means that each generation can choose for themselves what medical interventions they want, and they can avail themselves of any new advances that are made. They will not be force to live with the technology, and the choices, of their great-grandparents.