Painting of a large genetic structure with scientist removing a gene

A CURE-ious Development

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In July 2017, researchers reported that they had made significant progress in using CRISPR (Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats) gene editing techniques to correct a genetic mutation linked to a heart disorder called hypertrophic cardiomyopathy in human embryos. Gene Editing with CrisprThis technique is able to identify and remove defective sections of genes and then replace them with healthy strands of DNA, potentially eliminating certain disorders. But concern is growing within the scientific community that the technology is a step too far given the potential consequences of its misuse.

Although in its infancy, there is the possibility that CRISPR could eradicate many life threatening diseases, allowing genetic disorders such as cystic fibrosis and Huntington’s disease to be permanently removed from the human population. Utilitarian theory states that an action is ethically acceptable should it bring happiness to the greatest number of people. From this perspective, improving quality of life, reducing suffering from crippling disorders and altering genomes to facilitate increased resistance to contagious diseases would be considered an ethical pursuit.

Behave yourself!

In the development of CRISPR genome editing, a natural next step is to use the technology to enhance traits that would not be considered a necessity, in the same manner as preventing disease and birth defects. There is potential to enhance preferential characteristics such as intelligence, physical attributes and longer lifespan, although this is considered a difficult task by renowned biochemist Dana Carroll, Professor at the University of Utah; “I am sure there are broader human characteristics that people would like to be able to modulate, however those kind of multi-genetic traits would be difficult to edit because we don’t fully understand their basis, let alone what unintended consequences might result.” Kantian theory would oppose such a development, specifically through the reciprocity principle, which states that people should be treated not as an ‘end’ but a ‘means’. This implies that due to the consequences not being fully understood, the lives of those who are being tested upon would be devalued.

Altering negative behavioural traits, such as violent, sociopathic tendencies or paedophilia is another possibility with the CRISPR technology. From a utilitarian perspective, the aim is to give the most pleasure to the most people. Enhancing these characteristics will drive the development of society, producing more intelligent, competent people who live longer and contribute more meaningfully, which combined with reduced crime and anti-social behaviour, could be considered another step in the evolution of mankind. However, moral relativism, cultural and societal differences, would make agreeing on what is considered a preferential human trait almost impossible, as it is a highly subjective matter. The end result of this is of greater concern; a completely homogeneous society with any aberrations or variety stripped from its population at birth has a distinctly dystopian feel to it.

For the few, not the many?

Equality becomes an issue when considering the regulation of genetic alterations. If the technology progresses to the point where height, natural body composition and capacity to learn could be enhanced, with cost being the only prohibitive factor, this could lead to a form of genetic elitism. A small, wealthy section of the population that would be able to afford genetically modified children could breed a new form of discrimination directed at those without enhanced genetics, with the perception that those without modification are subhuman. If CRISPR actively facilitates the view that some humans may be seen as superior beings purely due to their genetic modifications, the equality postulate, a form of Kantian ethics, would regard the technology as unethical, as it states that all humans have the moral right to be treated equally.

Painting of a large genetic structure with scientist removing a geneAn “us vs them” mentality could be adopted by those who cannot afford the enhancements, creating tension between the two groups, stemming from the disadvantages the ‘unenhanced’ have faced from birth. This could hypothetically cause a net displeasure within the public domain and be seen as unethical from a utilitarian standpoint.

Genetic Genocide

Another fundamental argument to consider when discussing the morality of gene editing human embryos is that no babies have yet been born with changes made by the technology. Until such a breakthrough is made, the unknown effects of irreversible germline manipulation on future generations appears a strong case against the advancement of the technology. Reduction of genetic diversity, creating human beings with identical genomes, may lead to the whole population being more susceptible to viruses or any form of disease.

In the wake of initial studies in 2015, Francis Collins, Director of the National Institutes of Health in America, concurred unequivocally that germline manipulation “has been viewed almost universally as a line that should not be crossed”. However, research is continuing regardless, and if scientists succeed in improving success rates the line of opposition will weaken. Considering the freedom principle, which regards an action to be ethically sound as long as it does not deny or hinder the pleasure of others, clinically-applied CRISPR technology should not be pursued. It may benefit a parent to edit their child’s DNA, but there is no valid way to verify whether it is favourable for the child and future generations. If the technology continues to be developed, we run the risk of reducing people to their genetics. There is potential to undermine the humanity of the disabled, resulting in the marginalisation of those with inherited disorders in societies that actively seek to eliminate genetic diseases through germline intervention.

Where do we go from here?

The overarching dilemma when considering the ethics of gene altering research is ‘do the risks outweigh the rewards?’ The answer to this question only becomes clearer as we understand the technology more comprehensively. The more we develop CRISPR the more we can learn about its consequences, but in doing so we push ourselves ever closer to the precipice of genetic apocalypse. Can we really justify the risk to the future of the human race based on the perceived benefits of the technology?

61 thoughts on “A CURE-ious Development

  1. A fascinating read. It is interesting how you have expanded on the being able to alter genetic code to look past, not only current applications such as disease prevention, which is a forefront in modern genetic research, but also into future applications. It was nice to read how genetic manipulation can alter man kind for the better whilst you also considered not only if we can, but if we should be doing this.

    You stated clearly within the multiple, contrasting theories, such as the quoted utilitarian and kantian theories, to express alternative view points on the genetic manipulation of people. It was refreshing to find such a balanced standing on such a debatable matter.

    From my understanding, and in my personal opinion, genetic variation has proven to be essential in the development of populations spanning multiple species. There are many examples in the animal kingdom where a loss of genetic variation has led to extinction events. A study into island introduction of roe dear, Capreolus capreolus, by Steinbach et al., (2018) found that only one population remained viable, as genetic variation was maintained through connectivity with mainland populations. All isolated islands perished due to a believed dangerous level of inbreeding and a lack of genetic variability to maintain the population. Posing to the question that would the elimination of ‘undesirable’ genes actually be beneficial, and not act against natural selection which has been able to bring us to this point so far? If we all do manage to chose the genes we want, would this not mean we would all chose the best genes? and therefore be left with a genetically unstable population?

    Of course in nature there are counter examples to everything, a prime example is found in aphid species by Figueroa et al., (2018) stating that the species has obligative parthenogenetic reproductive behaviour. This means that they are basically able to clone themselves, of course lowering genetic variability, but still remaining highly successful.

    But this highlights another ethical concern of the word clone. What would happen to peoples individuality following genetic modification? There has been a large and recent push towards equality with everyone being able to express themselves in their own way and being treated equal, would this not therefore be considered a step back?

    Figueroa, C. C., Fuentes-Contreras, E., & Molina-Montenegro, Marco A. Ramirez, C. C. (2018). Biological and genetic features of introduced aphid populations in agroecosystems. Current Opinion in Insect Science, 26, 63–68. https://doi.org/10.1016/J.COIS.2018.01.004

    Steinbach, P., Heddergott, M., Weigand, H., Weigand, A. M., Wilwert, E., Stubbe, M., … Frantz, A. C. (2018). Rare migrants suffice to maintain high genetic diversity in an introduced island population of roe deer (Capreolus capreolus): Evidence from molecular data and simulations. Mammalian Biology, 88, 64–71. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.mambio.2017.11.009

    1. Excellent comment, thanks for all the effort you’ve gone through. That’s what PRE is all about. Great ethical debate combine with scientific rigour

    2. A brilliant comment, thank you.
      On your last point – has there really been a large step towards equality and freedom of expression? Or has the opposite happened, with those not agreeing with ‘popular culture’ being silenced. One ponders whether these truly are Orwellian times…

    3. I think you’ve summed up a good number of the ethical and biological concerns relating to this technology, adding to what has already been presented in the article. Discussion with similar depth will ensure that should this technology be released on a widespread scale, each stone in the ethical puzzle will not be left un-turned!

  2. In connection with this technology, I wonder would it be better to have a gene drive targeting female fertility or male fertility? How would you decide?

    Another type of question to ask: Would it be better to make (dangerous) cane toads sterile or to alter them so they do not produce toxins? Either way, we run the risk of actually eradicating the species.

    1. Interesting point; questions like these will be one of the many a body comprising of leading experts within the genetic engineering sector will need to consider if strict guidelines are established, as I feel they should. It is also vital that the results of any sort of irreversible change made can be predicted to the highest level of certainty, which will only materialise if research within the area can continue.

  3. This is a very eloquent discussion surrounding the use of CRISPR gene editing techniques. The potential this technology has for intervening in disease prevention is encouraging, providing an opportunity to alter and eliminate genetic mutations, that could significantly decrease quality of life. Preventing a disorder from occurring in a human population coincides with the utilitarian perspective, a view point that is influential when considering ethics.

    A well constructed argument is presented about alternative uses of this technology. Ethical considerations surrounding these alternative uses are arguably greater and can impact future generations if implemented. The point raised here about of loss of genetic variability, derived from changing human characteristics, is vital. Potentially detrimental to future populations, unnatural alternations to human genetics seems unethical if not directly benefiting humans, as with disease prevention.

  4. A riveting read! Such a fascinating melding of philosophical thought and scientific theory. Have you considered the implications on non-human lifeforms?

    1. This could be something considered in the future, however, it is probably best for the time being the focus remains on creating a predictive and safe tool to use on humans.

  5. A captivating and insightful read. Have you considered the potential of de-extinction? And uses of CRISPR in agriculture and designing specific nutritional profiles to potentially create nutritional hybrids or superfoods.

    1. I believe that the use of this technology with regards to food has already been applied on a much heightened scale, and will hopefully be able to assist in the development of human based genetic modification.

  6. A great read. Very interesting to think about the social implications of gene editing, if not somewhat terrifying! It could be interesting for the whole debate revolving around nature vs. nurture, and create a new insight into fields such as addiction and mental health.

    1. Extremely good points. I think there still needs to be a great deal of research into the nature vs nurture influences before gene editing becomes a possibility. It may be a case of changing the environment of people as a pose to physically changing they’re genetics!

    2. I believe that the exploration of CRISPR will only create further branches of biological research, such as the effects of certain genomes on behavioral traits. In my opinion, this is only a good thing, and signifies the advancement of human knowledge.

  7. This is a well written article, well done guys!

    I couldn’t agree more with the potential this technology holds; The ability to personalize our genes, is truly amazing. However I do think that “fear” should never stifle the pioneering of new fields. To quote FDR “The only thing to fear is fear itself… [it] paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advances”. We can not let fear stop us from making these advances regardless of the consequences. For if we truly believe it could save one life, then isn’t it worth it?

    Another point, the potential genetic elitism taking form is highly possible. But does that really matter… When the first mobile phones were produced, they were too expensive for the average Joe to own. (Appox. $4000 in 1980). But because the rich at the time bought it, those funds wee able to improve and reduce the cost for your John Doe. Was it necessarily fair that the top 1% had a phone in the 80s and the other 99% didn’t? No. But I think it could be acknowledged that it was necessary for us to get to the stage whee nearly everyone has a smartphone in their hands today. I believe the same logic can be applied to Genetic modification. There is always has, is and going to be inequality in some form,whether it is Rich & Poor, Men & Women, Young & Old. As such, it is important that government to step in to mitigate against this. Maybe by having a tax/ subsidy of some form to counter the genetic “models” from the necessary genetic alterations. Regardless, we should let people do what they ant. We wouldn’t tell a women what to do with her body. Why should we tell a rich man how to spend his money??

    1. Some extremely good ideas around the logistics of gene editing in society. I have to agree with you that new technology will not be available to all at first but one day like mobile phones we may all be able to edit our genes to better the health of the human population.

    2. A highly stimulating and thought provoking comment, thank you. I tend to agree with you. We live in a capitalist society (thank goodness), so perhaps we need to face the facts!

    3. This has certainly made me think about the original conclusions regarding this topic I had individually formed, thank you! As you state, the more initial funding provided by people utilising CRISPR (which will ultimately have to be provided by those who are wealthy, or government bodies), then as time progress, the more accessible this technology will become to all as the cost of a procedure is reduced.

    1. It’s all about establishing a compromise really. As you say, there are some points about this technology that one may find to be quite alarming, but in my opinion, if you then apply the positives to form a counter argument, these drastically outweigh the negatives due to the massive improvements in quality of life CRISPR could lead to.

  8. Certainly a thought provoking article. I would opine that, like most instances where ethics could be ignored and abused in the pursuit of profit, the techniques mentioned should be heavily regulated and kept well within the control of the State. Perhaps a regulatory/ethics panel or board made up of relevant professionals could be used to collectively adjudge the ethical nature of new developments?

    1. Good point – The construction of the framework regarding such genetic technology would be an entirely different consideration altogether. This would require vast amounts of input from a wide variety of medical and engineering bodies with expertise in the area, whilst also passed through government legislation.

    1. I believe that GM regarding food has been pushed out at a much faster rate than that undergone with humans. Perhaps we will be able to learn a great deal about this technology in the years to come from this.

  9. I can appreciate the benefits CRISPR gene editing can have from a medical perspective, potentially eliminating life threatening diseases and improving the quality of life for many of the population. However, my concern lies with reducing someone to just a simple genetic make-up, losing all unique characteristics, personalities and physical attributes that they as an individual have to offer. How can the freedom of expression and diversity be expressed when everyone is formed from the same genetic make up? Seems fairly unethical to strip someone of these basic human rights. Although, all in all, a very interesting read.

    1. That is a good point – if everyone were to be confined to the same “ideal” characteristics, we risk loosing our unique identifies. Perhaps this is where universal regulation could step in, as discussed in an above comment?

  10. Very interesting discussion on the ethics surrounding the debate. A lot of talk has been focusing on how Artifical Intelligence could be the new uncontrollable threat to humans, and then I read this article…

    1. That’s very true. It is interesting that the majority of worry regarding future tech is the advancement of AI, when in my opinion, human genetic modification is just as significant! It would be good if human GM began to spark as much of a debate as AI development does.

  11. A thought provoking article with many pros and cons to be considered.So much good could potentially come from CRISPR gene editing, certainly from a medical/health viewpoint. However, the possibility for gene editing being open to “abuse” is definitely something to be concerned about and strict regulation would be required.

    1. Yes, I agree with your point as it appears many others commenting do. It is certainty strongly felt that despite the various concerns about the dangers, the potential positives that could result, such as removal of hereditary disease, is surely too significant too overlook, and we must at least explore this technology for the foreseeable future.

  12. This is really interesting but I feel like I might question the potential usefulness of CRISPR in terms of eradicating pedophilia / violence and sociopathic tendencies in a lot of cases. It’s still not clear how much of this behavior is learned and due to the nurture / environmental factors and how much is due to a persons genetic make up. I don’t know how much genetic alteration could prevent differences in an individuals upbringing / environment unless everyone is made to be completely identical.

    1. That is true, however, I feel there is still much research to be done in understanding the underlying causes behind behaviors such as pedophilia etc. Much of the work done so far is only concerned with the environment these individuals were raised in; so if we could instead now investigate prior to early life and actually into the genetic makeup, perhaps we could find some interesting correlations.

  13. It’s a compliment to the article’s topic and structure that you have already gained so many comments. I won’t add much more but ask if you can look at this from a virtue ethics point of view as well. Duty Ethics/Kantism and Utilitarianism have been considered very well, and understandably so as well, but how do both sides of the argument look from a Virtue Ethics point of view?
    Or have I over-looked that?

    Great article, thank you.

    1. I think we have looked at virtue ethics slightly less than the others in the ethical cycle. We could consider the actions of the doctors and scientists implementing the technology.

    2. From a virtue ethics point of view, if the medical professionals who are outlining and conducting the medical procedure act with sound ethical intentions at all times, this technology would be ethically acceptable.

  14. An excellent and thought-provoking article. Whilst there are obvious benefits to gene editing such as the elimination of hereditary diseases, I have doubts that such technologies may be used to correct behavioural traits such as violence where evidence suggests the traits are influenced by both nature and nurture. I believe that rigorous scientific evidence must be utilised to justify the use of gene editing and that laws must be created before the technology is abused.

    1. As described in an above comment, I don’t believe much research has tried to correlate certain genes to the behaviors of that demonstrated by overly aggressive individuals. It would at least be interesting to investigate if any correlations between certain genomes and behavioral traits exist.

  15. On a religious point of view, this looks to me as humans PLAYING God. It is against nature and the balance between life and death. With many Christian friends I am aware they believe we are not authorised to make decisions like this. Also, the more we tamper with genetics, we don’t truly understand the side effects of what we do for generations to come. More so, there are reports where the removal of unfavoured cells have been attempted, which then lead to other problems emerging, which weren’t expected.

    1. You’re right – unexpected results such as unleashing damaged mutations into the gene pool could lead to catastrophic consequences! We would have to ensure this technology is extremely well researched before any sort of mainstream use can commence.

    2. Thanks for your comment and addressing a slightly different point of view to those who have already commented. Of course, perhaps those with religious beliefs would share differing views to those solely based upon scientific reasoning, and should certainly be considered equally across any debate regarding the ethics of this technology.

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