International Gene Editing: Scientists Debate The Use And Ethics Of Technology To Edit The Human Genome [Videos]

An international gene editing summit is currently ongoing in Washington where hundreds of scientists and ethicists have gathered from around the world in order to discuss the future of gene editing. Technology has finally reached the point that our genetic code can be modified to cure disease, prolong life, and potentially create designer humans. Nobel laureate David Baltimore of the California Institute of Technology gave the opening statement at the gene editing summit.

“We sense that we are close to being able to alter human heredity. This is something to which all people should pay attention.”

What used to only be considered science fiction is rapidly becoming science fact. The topic of gene editing was thrust into the forefront of the science community when scientists in China attempted to change the genes of a human embryo. The experiment failed, but forced the scientific community to realize that human intelligence and technology have finally reached the point where they could change our genetic fate. Jennifer Doudna, a molecular biologist from the University of California, Berkeley, is one of the inventors of the most common tool used in gene editing. Doudna cautions that there are great risks involved when tampering with our genetic code.

“This is a technology that could have profound implications for permanent alteration of the human genome.”

Scientists are currently using gene editing on animals in order to find cures for humans that have muscular dystrophy, sickle-cell disease, and many forms of cancer. Scientists are also genetically engineering insects that spread disease to no longer have the capability to do so.

One of the most important issue at the moment in the gene editing community is the safety of the procedure. One wrong maneuver and a person’s genes could be damaged beyond repair, leading to many uncertain outcomes. The CRISPR-Cas9 gene editing tool, which is cheap and user-friendly, is not infallible. The Broad Institute at MIT and Harvard are currently working on making the CRISPR-Cas9 more accurate so that it does not cut the wrong section of DNA. By eliminating the margin of error, better therapies can be created.

Besides safety, ethics is a huge issue that needs great discussion in the field of gene editing. The biggest ethical dilemma is if the technology should be used to create “designer babies.” Should scientists work on perfecting editing the genes of human reproductive cells? John Holdren of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy said that “is a line that should not be crossed at this time.” The failed Chinese experiment proved that the technology to manipulate genes at the embryonic level is not here yet, but it will not stop other scientists and researchers from trying to create it.

What would the world look like if “designer babies” actually became reality? In 1997, Hollywood gave us a glimpse of how the world could look. The film Gattaca showed a type of dystopian Earth where the wealthy were able to create genetically modified offspring that were perfect human specimens while the poor was only able to leave their genetic make-up to random chance, the way it is now. This distinct separation of essentially two types of humans created a divide in the human race were the ones not genetically perfect were as inferior to what a caveman would be to us now. Will this be our world one day?

The pros and cons for gene editing will be argued for decades to come. Will we use gene editing to unlock the human genome to its most maximum capacity, or will we wipe out our own species by trying to control nature?

What are your thoughts on gene editing? Would you ever consider it for yourself or your offspring?

[Image via AP Photo/Susan Walsh]