By Maria Coluccio
In the TED Talk “We can now edit our DNA. But let’s do so wisely,” geneticist Jennifer Doudna talks about the rapidly developing field of gene editing technology and its serious ethical implications. A few years ago, Doudna created CRISPR-Cas9, a gene editing technology that has the potential to cure chronic genetic diseases. It works by identifying, cutting, and degrading specific harmful viral DNA. Doudna explained how the process was similar to “the way we use a word-processing program to fix a typo in a document”. However, with great power comes great responsibility. In the future, CRISPR technology could potentially be used for human enhancement. This possibility of using gene editing technology on human embryos to modify certain human attributes is a highly controversial topic.
According to National Institute of Health (NIH), gene editing technologies should only be used for non-heritable and therapeutic application, such as HIV-1 treatments. Regulations restricting research on gene editing are already in place. In the United States, it is illegal to fund any research for gene editing on human embryos. These laws are enacted for both medical and ethical reasons. The accidental inactivation of essential genes can lead to serious medical risks in the embryo. There is also a possibility of future medical risks occurring as the human embryo ages. There are also serious ethical issues about whether one should have the ability to regulate genes and if one should, then which genes ethically should be modified.
Are we on a path towards legal baby-designing? Not yet. There is not enough research on which genes are involved in specific traits and how much of a role the environment plays in gene expression. Therefore, there are still many steps that need to be taken before we are able to “design a baby”. However, just because science isn’t there yet, doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t have these conversations.
Although NIH will only support non-heritable human gene editing technologies and research, the institute is interested in participating in international discussions about this medically and ethically complex topic. If other countries hold a similar perspective, a global agreement could be reached based on the common consensus that human gene edited embryos or germ cells should not be used to establish pregnancy. In either case, a multidisciplinary forum composed of international professionals and key stakeholders should be created in order to increase global engagement surrounding the implications of gene editing.
To learn more and hear the TEDTalk for yourself, click here.