As I said in a BreakPoint commentary last month, gene-editing technologies such as CRISPR and what’s being called “Prime Editing” are “existential threats.” We have no idea what our attempts to play god with the human genome will unleash on humanity. Yet, we insist on charging ahead despite our imperfect knowledge with an unbounded confidence in our abilities.
Coming from a concerned non-scientist like me, these concerns can be easily dismissed as alarmist, but what if the concern comes from the Director of the National Institutes of Health?
It turns out that Francis Collins is also concerned. In a recent article in Discover Magazine entitled “We Must Never Allow Our Technology to Eclipse Our Humanity,” Collins called for a “moratorium of at least five years on heritable human gene editing.”
Heritable gene editing technologies, like “Prime Editing,” aim to edit genes that can be passed on to future generations, along with any unintended and dangerous mutations. This differs from “non-heritable gene editing,” which can be used to treat people with “life-threatening disorders, such as sickle cell disease, HIV infection, cancer and muscular dystrophy.”
Proponents of Prime Editing talk about the possibility of making “any kind of DNA change that anyone wants at just about any site in the human genome.” Thus, according to Collins, “scientists and leaders around the globe have an obligation to consider the appropriate use — if any — of heritable human gene editing. This involves scrutinizing the safety of such experiments, including the risk of unintended mutations, as well as a clear-eyed analysis of actual medical need.”
Anticipating some objections, the NIH Director added that “the current arguments — that the benefits outweigh the risks — are surprisingly uncompelling.”
Finally, Collins insisted that “We must weigh the profound social, ethical and moral issues associated with modifying the germline in ways that could change the human species forever.”
It’s good to hear someone as prominent as the director of the National Institutes of Health voice many of the same concerns we have at BreakPoint. But, as Wesley J. Smith pointed out at National Review, it’s probably not enough. As Smith notes, when it comes to “the rapid development of the most powerful technologies ever invented — CRISPR germline gene editing, “artificial life,” “3-parent” embryos, cloning,” the Trump Administration has been, and I am quoting Smith here, “derelict.”
For the most part, while NIH Director Collins’ statement should be applauded, it is an exception. As Smith states, “unless leaders higher up the food chain engage the question in more amplified media venues than Discover,” Collins’ proposed moratorium will never happen.
In some ways, as I recently pointed out, the Communist Party of China, by sentencing Dr. He Jiankui to three years imprisonment for experimenting on fetuses using CRISPR, has demonstrated more commitment to reining in scientific hubris than our own government. Of course, given their track record, it would be silly to think that Beijing cares at all about humanity dignity and the sanctity of human life. Their reaction was almost certainly because Dr. He’s transgressions portrayed that country in an especially bad light.
In our country, scientists differ from Dr. He in only one respect: They’re a lot more subtle about what they are doing than Dr. He was.
We need much more evidence that those “higher up the food chain” in this administration care about the issue and are willing to make it a priority. For that to happen, we have let them know that it’s a priority for us.
Gene editing, what Smith has called “biotech anarchy,” is among the greatest threats to the sanctity and dignity of human life that we currently face. I will say it again: It is an existential threat. It’s time for Christians, and through them our leaders, to treat it like one.