Welcome to the brave new world.
An international panel of 22 scientists from the U.S. China, France, Israel and Italy has concluded that the genetic modification of humans’ heritable traits, that could be passed down through generations, should be allowed for disease prevention when the technology allows.
The panel, working under the U.S. National Academy of Sciences and the U.S. National Academy of Medicine, completed a comprehensive review of the current state of gene editting. While scientists have been able to edit DNA in human cells for decades, recent advances, such as the CRISPR-Cas9 technique, have made it possible to do it both easier and faster, reported WABE. CRISPR-Cas9 has already been used by Chinese researchers as part of a clinical trial against aggressive lung cancer.
“Human genome editing holds tremendous promise for understanding, treating, or preventing many devastating genetic diseases, and for improving treatment of many other illnesses,” said Alta Charo, a bioethicist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison who co-chaired the committee. “And if certain conditions are met, it might be permissible to try it.”
The certain condition — first and foremost, the panel agreed — is that altering genes in human sperm, eggs or embryos that will be passed to future generations, be done only to prevent serious diseases and disabilities. The report cited diseases such as breast cancer, Tay-Sachs, sickle-cell anemia, cystic fibrosis and Huntington’s disease.
Charo dismissed concerns the report opened the door to the creation of designer babies by parents selecting desireable physical and intellectual traits for their planned offspring — something that is not currently possible but definitely is suggested by recent scientific advances.
“We said, ‘Use it for serious diseases and serious conditions only — period,'” Charo responded. “We simply said, ‘No enhancement.'”
But one person’s enhancement is another’s prevention, noted Harvard geneticist George Church.
“The report is very clearly broad,” Church said. “It could include a lot of things people consider enhancement. I think it will be case by case and there will be some people will be consider enhancement that some people will consider preventive medicine.”
See WND’s previous report on gene therapy in which Christian ethics experts predict new gene therapy treatments will not be made available to ordinary Americans and may already be given to elite members of the political class.
The report acknowledges the Pandora’s-box problem. Once gene-editing techniques are developed to prevent or treat a muscle disease like muscular dystrophy, its potential value as a means of giving healthy individuals greater strength will become apparent and desirable.
While the report anticipates advances that will make the proposed gene editing technically feasible, it argues clinical trials are premature at this time and must be subject to restrictions:
- Allowed only if no “reasonable alternative” exists to prevent a “serious disease or condition”;
- That the gene being edited has been “convincingly demonstrated” to be the “cause” or known to “strongly predispose” a person to the disease;
- That genes be converted only to versions “known to be associated with ordinary health”;
- That studies be conducted with “ongoing, rigorous oversight” and “comprehensive plans for long-term, multi-generational follow-up”;
- Implementation of “reliable oversight mechanisms to prevent extension to uses other than preventing a serious disease or condition.”
“I don’t think there’s any way to keep that genie in the bottle,” said Marcy Darnovsky, who runs the Center for Genetics and Society.
Additional concerns were raised over the possibility of gene editing curing one disease while creating new ones that enter the gene pool.
Tom Horn, a Christian author, filmmaker and researcher, expressed his concerns about “transhumanism” and the latest advances in gene editing to WND late last year.
“It holds great promise in new disease therapies but immeasurable peril due to its capacity to make germline genetic modifications, which would be passed on to all future generations, not to mention planned extinctions through gene-drive technology which is already past ‘proof of concept,'” said the co-author of “Pandemonium’s Engine.”
WND reported in November on plans by the Pentagon’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, dubbed DARPA, to develop a cleanup crew for engineered genes deemed harmful to the eco-system.
The initiative is called “Safe Genes” – a program designed to counteract gene-drive systems currently being developed to override the standard rules of gene inheritance and natural selection. The danger, scientists recognize, is that without a backup plan, a gene drive released into nature could spread or change in unexpected ways with potentially disastrous effects.
Kevin Esvelt, head of the Sculpting Evolution lab at MIT Media Lab, which is applying for Safe Genes funding in collaboration with eight other research groups, predicts that eventually an accident will allow a drive with potential to spread globally to escape laboratory controls.
“It’s not going to be bioterror,” he told Scientific American, “it’s going to be ‘bioerror.'”