Can you imagine a world without disease? Cancer, HIV, sickle-cell, diabetes, tuberculosis, and all of the other potentially fatal diseases we loathe, gone for good! Would it not be incredible? What if you could receive an injection which ultimately makes you immune to all of these diseases - would you sign up? What if you knew this immunity would be passed down onto your children, and your children’s children, for future generations to come - would that persuade you even more? It all sounds like philosophical sci-fi, and human genetic engineering was once very much just that. But the concept is now becoming a reality with an innovative new genome editing technology, known as CRISPR, that has taken the scientific world by storm.
Since teaching this topic in ethics, I have long wanted to write an article on human genetic engineering, simply because the possibilities are so mindboggling. Designer babies, increased life expectancy, and the eradication of disease are all on the prospectus of this new technology. But changing our biology is certainly controversial and has many implications for society in the long run. It will drastically alter the way in which the human race develops. So, as we progress further into the technological age, should we be worried?
What is human genetic engineering?
Genetic engineering is the manipulation of DNA in any living organism, and it has already been used for decades. In agriculture we use genetic engineering all the time to grow better crops such as corn and soy. By altering the genetic code of a plant in the laboratory, we can introduce changes that improve the end product in terms of its quality, nutrition, and shelf life. The process is completely legal, and it is now commonplace to find such genetically engineered foods in the supermarket. In fact, it is quite likely that you have eaten some form of genetically modified food in the last few days.
Human genetic engineering is no different, in that we can alter the genetic code of a human in order to make an improvement. In the past, such attempts have been expensive and complicated. It could take years to conduct one single experiment. However, a new type of technology called Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats (more commonly known as CRISPR) has revolutionised the process, reducing the time it takes to only a few months and decreasing costs by 99%.
CRISPR is basically a form of DNA found in certain bacteria and acts like a pair of scissors, able to cut out other strands of DNA. Via injection, we can use CRISPR on our own human cells and remove whatever we choose to from the DNA sequence altogether. This is why we are so attracted to the technology – we can quite literally cut out parts of human biology we disfavour. CRISPR therefore has the massive potential to eradicate disease, ultimately reducing a huge amount of suffering and saving millions of lives.
How CRISPR works
Last year, a revolutionary study in the USA revealed that HIV was safely eradicated from mice using CRISPR. Now human trials are being conducted on patients with cancer, sickle-cell, and glaucoma to see how ground-breaking the technology really is. However, we are only in the early stages of human trialling and are treading very carefully. A singular gene can have multiple functions, so changing one of them could potentially create a whole new set of problems.
Can human genetic engineering help beat coronavirus?
There are a small number of trials ongoing at the moment to try and find a CRISPR-type therapy to fight the dreaded COVID-19 virus. The technology could, in theory, remove the virus from the body. However, the problem is that the technology is still in its infancy and we have not been testing it on anything that resembles such a rapidly insidious virus like COVID-19. And even if we do find a CRISPR solution, we cannot execute it on a wide scale until we are sure that it is safe in the long run, which of course means extensive periods of trialling. In order to defeat coronavirus, scientists are scrambling to find a solution, and CRISPR is certainly not excluded. But the timeframes are equally as frustrating as a vaccine.
Designer babies and superhumans
There is another controversial facet to this technology. CRISPR can be used to edit the genes of babies at the very earliest stage of their life – as embryos. Through treatments like IVF, an embryo is implanted into the female uterus in the hope that it will develop into a pregnancy. Before this happens, we can use CRISPR technology to manipulate the embryo’s genes. But wait – this isn’t the controversial part. This particular form of human genetic engineering is known as germline therapy and is much more significant. This is because any changes to the genetic code can be passed down onto future generations. So, to put it more plainly, once a genetically engineered child grows up, they can pass on their genetic code to any offspring they have. This means that germline therapy has the potential to re-engineer the human race, and this is precisely why it is currently illegal.
So what kind of changes to the embryo are we talking about? Well, the most popular desired trait for a child right now would be immunity from diseases like cancer. But why stop there? How about installing a better immune system to ensure a child is resistant to everything? How about enhanced intelligence, incredible strength, or even aesthetic changes such as eye colour? As the technology becomes more refined and accessible, humanity may not be able to resist the temptation to use it for any number of child enhancements; there really are no boundaries.
Designer babies could be advertised if we ethically allow it as a society.
Although human genetic engineering is an exciting scientific development, we should certainly be careful. A growing fear is that the technology could lead us down a slippery slope in which a breed of superhumans emerge. Genetically modified humans would assumingly always have some sort of advantage over natural humans, meaning that certain industries and job sectors would favour those candidates with enhanced traits. We might find ourselves more attracted to those who are enhanced with a guaranteed clean bill of health, changing the qualities we look for in a potential partner (especially when we know that our own future offspring would potentially inherit such traits). Or perhaps things will go down a darker path and we open a pandora’s box which will result in nothing but a dystopian social divide between the superhumans (them) and the naturals (us).
The Nuffield Council on Bioethics, one of the UK’s leading organisations on bioethics, inform us that the technology could result in social division if used irresponsibly. They also raise concerns around affordability; only those who are financially privileged could ever afford it, thus resulting in social inequalities. Although, I am not sure how much of an issue this would really be - we already have children going to private schools giving one child an advantage over another in education. We have no qualms with private health care for those who can afford it. Is this really any different?
The idea of enhancing our babies without their consent is also another ethical issue raised by philosophers. Do we have the right to modify an embryo when it cannot consent to any changes? Those who argue yes will say there are many important choices our parents have to make for us, such as our name, our education, our diet, etc. All of these variables have a role in how we develop from children into adults. If our parents chose biological traits in our best interest, would we really hold it against them?
If history has taught us anything, it is that people are people, and we will play with fire. If we are told that the legally the technology can only be used for medical enhancements, can we be sure that every country will abide by the rules and use the technology responsibly? Some philosophers think that cosmetic enhancements will creep in through some legal loophole enabling a wave of aesthetically perfect humans. Some are even fearful that the technology might get into the wrong hands and be used to create an army of super soldiers by some future evil dictator (yes, Adolf Hitler and Kim Jung-un come to mind too).
The film franchise Jurassic Park reflects the dangerous possibilities of non-human genetic engineering.
A set of twins were born in October 2018, with pseudonyms Lulu and Nana, and Jiankui announced on YouTube that he’d done it – he had created the world’s first genetically engineered humans. Unfortunately for him, the scientific community were absolutely horrified. Despite his attempt to eradicate HIV, Jiankui went against strict medical regulations and his work was therefore frowned upon. One of the main reasons why the technology is currently forbidden is because of the risks and potential long term side effects; we simply don’t know enough yet.
Allegedly, documents were forged and lies were told in order for Jiankui to conduct the experiments without any regulatory authorities finding out. After his announcement on YouTube, he published his work in more detail at a scientific conference in Hong Kong. It wasn’t long before a court case ensued and he was found guilty in December 2019 for violating medical law. He was sent to prison for 3 years.
He Jiankui at the Second International Summit on Human Genome Editing, Hong Kong (2018)
Human genetic engineering means altering the human race, and this may not sit well with many of us. However, depending on what we use the technology for could certainly sway people, i.e. if we can save lives by eradicating disease then we should welcome the technology with wide open arms. However, we should certainly tread carefully and ensure that the technology is meticulously regulated. We should also ensure that we have conducted enough research to mitigate any long-term medical effects before we start using it. Once we open the door to this new technology there is no turning back, for future generations will be changed forever, hopefully, for the better.