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Social Controversy and Ramifications of Gene-editing Human Embryos

A woman hand supporting an embryo / Photo by 123rf.com

 

Philosophy in the biological context — biophilosophy — is really the convergence of what we can do and what we should do scientifically. It was recently demonstrated in what many hold as the most profound scientific breakthrough in several decades that the cells of sperm can be edited directly, which opens the door for so-called designer babies to be mapped out in advance. It is technically possible at this point to control the human genome to such an extent that babies are customized to phenotypically express exactly the genes parents want expressed, theoretically resulting in ideal or “perfect” babies. The controversy surrounding this prospect has intensified to a nearly insurmountable degree in recent weeks as a result despite the fact that no company or entity in the world currently offers any such service since the science itself is brand new. Biophilosophy, however, is where bioethicists question whether or not feasibility yields license to, in effect, interfere with natural selection so overtly.

To be clear, gene editing has been feasible for many years now. The optimal tool for accomplishing it is known as CRISPR-Cas9, and even the tool itself represented its own controversy already. It’s essentially gene-editing nanotechnology that geneticists have been using for quite some time now to execute changes to DNA with increasing proficiency over he ears. It’s literally just inconceivably small scissors with an even smaller glue-stick attached, and the marvel of it is, in large part, that CRISPR is small enough to physically cut strands of DNA and paste segments together as scientists see fit. The problem is that it’s been used to do things that many feel shouldn’t be done, and it also comes with some unintended consequences.

 

 

In the case of the latter, GMO products are, perhaps, the best example because genetically modified foods are commonly protested in affluent countries (e.g. US. UK, France, etc.) where consumer bases can afford to protest the kinds of food they get as opposed to poorer countries with more rural economies (e.g. Angola, Thailand, Afghanistan, etc.) whose consumer bases suffer from drought too often to scoff at technology that could feasibly multiply their national food supplies. The unintended consequences that CRISPR causes, though, is seen when geneticists make cuts and inadvertently delete DNA loci they never even targeted. It can happen without scientists even necessarily realizing it, and the resultant change can have drastic effects on the organism in question.

“We speculate that current assessments may have missed the substantial proportion of potential genotypes generated by on-target Cas9 cutting and repair, some of which may have potential pathogenic consequences following somatic editing of large populations of mitotically active cells,” write researchers from the Wellcome Sanger Institute, which is based in the UK. They published that study in Nature Biotechnology just this week, and they’re hardly the first to report this kind of caveat with regard to Cas9. It’s been a point of contention discussed in many a paper for years now, and new research has repeatedly confirmed and, in this case, furthered those negative findings to prove that the tool is far from foolproof.

That said, the most recent breakthrough wasn’t with regard to gene editing per se so much as finding a way to edit the genes found in the cells of sperm, which was heretofore impossible. Until this year, scientists had no way of gene-editing sperm without destroying said sperm in the process. Researchers at Weill Cornell Medicine, which is in New York, figured out how to get the job done, though. They published a study in which they successfully engineered an electrical pulse that breaks sperm’s outer shell without destroying the sperm so that they could, then, deliver CRISPR to the cell directly and thereby execute the edit. It is, indeed, one of the most objectively remarkable achievements in modern medicine to date, but it has only given way to greater controversies because of the possibilities it signifies.

 

 

This capability signifies the option to do away with genetic mutations by nipping them in the bud. Birth defects and any congenital medical disorders can be edited out long in advance of embryonic maturation. Lead scientist on the Weill Cornell study says, “In theory, all single-gene disorders transmittable by the male can be treated if we are able to successfully use CRISPR-Cas9 on sperm.” That accounts for approximately 10,000 genetic disorders that classify as single-cell conditions, which is significant. This, in turn, also means, though, that the prospect of designer babies is truly upon us now; it’s no longer science fiction. Foreseeing this likelihood in America, in fact, the US National Institutes of Health long ago banned the use of CRISPR on human embryos to ensure the controversy would be abstract at best in the US, though the Human Fertilization and Embryology Authority, an arm of the British Department of Health, established as of January that embryos can be gene-edited for research purposes only.

Now, the latest development is that the Nuffield Council on Bioethics, arguably the leading advisory bureau in the UK for such matters, has published a controversial report on Tuesday in which they advocate a more tolerant look at the prospects of gene-editing human embryos. The paper suggests that there may be a morally and ethically permissible way to approach human genetic manipulation. This report comes following a full year’s worth of research, and the bioethicists and geneticists that penned it allege that this can be done responsibly. “It is our view that genome editing is not morally unacceptable in itself,” Karen Yeung starts as chair of the Nuffield working group and professor of ethics, law, and informatics at the University of Birmingham. That’s the given premise to accept before their argument can even be engaged, and not everyone is necessarily onboard at that point.

“Concerns have long existed that genetic technologies could lead to the emergence of a ‘genetic underclass,’” the paper reads, hearkening back with significant proximity to the 1997 science-fiction film, Gattaca. “In a number of generations, it is imaginable that a schism might arise between the ‘gene-rich’ and ‘gene poor,’ which could have the effect of undermining ‘genetic solidarity’ as a basis for moral treatment of others.” In like manner, the entire paper is spent theorizing ways in which legislation can hedge against the pitfalls of whatever society would result from such technology.

 

Fertilizing an egg through in vitro fertilization / Photo by 123rf.com

 

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