Is it ethical to edit human genome?

This week on Talk-back-Thursday, we’ll talk about a new Chinese research which recently edited human genome of embryo using the CRISPR technology. The results were published in the online journal Protein and Cell and confirm widespread rumours that such experiments had been conducted.

This sparked a high profile debate last month about ethics of human genome editing.

Researchers led by Junjio Huang, a gene function researcher at Sun Yat-sen University in Guangzhou tried to avoid such concerns using ‘non-viable’ embryos which cannot result in live birth.

The team attempted to modify the gene responsible for Beta-thalassaemia, a potentially fatal blood disorder using the CRISPR/Cas9 technology. This is the first time that such work has been done on Human cells.

crispr.jpg

It is said that, it may be possible using CRISPR technology, to eliminate disease causing genes in a zygote which may be susceptible to a variety of genetic diseases even before it is implanted on the uterus.

The resultant baby born, therefore, will have its genome altered.

The question is, is it ethical?

Sure, curing a child of a disease even before it is born sounds great, and it would be…but… this technology is a slippery slope towards unsafe or unethical uses.

What if the CRISPR attacks any off-target gene? Say, a gene which controls embryonic limb development? The baby thus born would be …. without limbs. Or defective limbs. Or without eyes, or ears or any million other things that could go wrong.  Will it be ethical to deny the foetus the right to be born because there is some defect that the CRISPR procedure caused? Will it be criminal negligence on part of doctors?

What if this CRISPR technology creates humans with superior genetic structure than the normal. What if we have Genetically Modified Humans? It will be awesome right. Well, think again. We will be creating a sub set of population *superior* than others. History is evident, that when a set of population considers themselves to be superior than others, it doesn’t really end well.

What if a tech corporation, ‘patents’ a genetically modified human being like Monsanto patented Bt Cotton? Will that be ‘ownership’ of the human?

But is the fear irrational? This isn’t the first time we are afraid of a technology that could be very dangerous. Some stone age man named Barney may had similar thoughts – Is it ethical and safe to use such a dangerous, hot, blazing energy which could burn down forests and people and cause immense pain to cook my fish? I could just eat it raw without having to face any labour of building a fire, nor danger from it. Flint-stone is a mad man! He is going to use that dangerous energy to cook his fish! He is going to get burned and it isn’t even that cold!

Barney died of food poisoning that Tuesday morning. Alas, little did he know, his salmon had salmonella.

But Flintstone lived. He cooked his fish. Smart and risk taking man not afraid to use new dangerous technology.

He lived, and had children, he taught his children how to use fire. Sure, he burned some of his fingers, but he did. His children taught their children, and so on. Hence we have a progeny of people not afraid to use fire.

Of course, this doesn’t mean that we should use dangerous technology carelessly, this is just an anecdote. The problem is, the government, politics and law are not paced with the scientific progress. There is literally no law which talks about human genome editing and other new biotech ideas.

In order to have an efficient regulation of using new scientific research, public needs to be aware and share their opinions on what light the emerging technologies should be viewed in.

Therefore, what do you think about this research? Is it ethical for you that human genome has been altered?

What impacts do you think this will have on our society?

Please share you opinions in the comment section below, or the Facebook comment section. We would be happy to know your opinion. To be more informed, read these links about their research.

http://www.nature.com/news/chinese-scientists-genetically-modify-human-embryos-1.17378

Make sure you read the comment section of the Nature article above, to have some interesting insights.

Link to the research paper. 

Reddit discussion of Chinese research.

Written by – Aditya Karmarkar

 

 

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