National Human Genome Research Institute
Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982)
Blade Runner (1982)
Jurassic Park (1993)
Dark Angel (2000-2002)
Star Wars: Episode II - Attack of the Clones (2002)
Resident Evil (2002)
Jurassic World (2015)
Orphan Black (2013-2017)
The issue of genetic engineering, gene editing or genetic manipulation has been a staple of science fiction films and series as can be gauged from the above sample of films and TV series which have explored this theme from various standpoints.
As we journey further into a new century, what was once considered to be an interesting part of speculative fiction and philosophical and ethical debate, has now become a disturbing reality confronting us all.
We begin this segment of our journey from the realm of science fiction to the cusp of science fact with The International Summit on Human Genome Editing held recently in Hong Kong.
Researchers, ethicists, and policymakers attending the meeting learned of a Chinese researcher’s astounding claim through media reports. The Chinese researcher, Dr He Jiankui of the Southern University of Science and Technology in Shenzhen, China claimed that he had altered the genomes of twin baby girls, named Lula and Nana and that this modification would be passed onto future generations. In other words, the researcher claimed to have created gene-edited twins.
According to He Jiankui, he altered embryos for seven couples during fertility treatments. One pregnancy had so far been achieved. In each case, the father was infected with HIV while the mothers were HIV-negative. Dr He’s intention was to introduce a rare, natural genetic variation that makes it more difficult for HIV to infect its preferred target, white blood cells. He deleted a region of a receptor on the surface of white blood cells known as CCR5 using the revolutionary genome-editing technique called CRISPR-Cas9. The goal was to protect the babies from HIV infection later in life by making the children’s cells resistant to infection by HIV.
CRISPR-Cas9: a customizable tool allowing scientists to cut and insert small pieces of DNA at precise areas along a DNA strand. The tool consists of;
1. the Cas9 protein, (the wrench)
2. the CRISPRs or specific RNA guides (the set of different socket heads) which direct the Cas9 protein to the correct gene, or area on the DNA strand, that controls a particular trait.
The sensitivity of the issue of gene editing of human beings can be seen from the reaction the scientist’s claim has generated. Comments such as “premature,” “ethically problematic,” “a serious violation of the Chinese government’s laws and regulations and the consensus of the Chinese scientific community” and “monstrous” have been hurled about to describe the possible scientific development. It is certainly light years away from being viewed as a ‘revolutionary advance’ or ‘breakthrough.’ The question is, why?
If Dr He’s claims prove to be correct, there are many in the scientific community who would view his actions as having “seriously violate(d) academic ethics and academic norms.”
At present, the use of CRISPR-Cas9 as a treatment for many genetic diseases, such as muscular dystrophy and sickle cell anaemia is being investigated. Incidents of gene editing have involved the use of so-called somatic cells that are not passed on to the patient’s children. Dr He Jiankui has appeared to have gone further by altering the genome in early stage embryos thereby affecting sperm and eggs (the germ line) and making the change heritable. Such procedures are barred in the United States and many other countries.
Many would view the gene editing work as being nothing more than an experiment just to see if gene editing on an embryo could be done – the old answer to the question of, why do it? Because we can! The real question ought to be “should we do it?” and “What might the consequences be?” After all, there are many ways to effectively protect oneself against HIV without the need or the potential and unforeseen risks of editing the genes of an embryo to achieve the same result.
The experimental nature of gene editing would suggest that caution needs to be exercised since no guarantee can be given that mutations and genetic problems would not occur later in life for those undergoing such a process. An important ethical consideration is raised with the possibility of exposing healthy normal children to the potential risks of gene editing for no real benefit. And what of the potential and unforeseen consequences to the entire human species!? For instance, if genes that are crucial to the human immune system are removed, could this then increase the risk of susceptibility to other diseases?
If Dr He’s claims prove to be valid, I’m afraid that this is yet another case of scientific advancement in which the once closed and locked door has been opened just a crack. Whether we like it or not, having once been unlocked and opened, it is likely that the door will swing open wider letting in God knows what!
No matter what checks and balances are put in place, someone somewhere will work secretly and under the radar on experiments such as gene editing. Take for instance, the reports of a team of biologists at the Oregon Health and Science University in the US who used CRISPR to genetically edit more than 100 human embryos. Most people in the scientific community were unaware of this until a paper was published!
An understandable fear many people may have is that the Pandora's box of genetic enhancements and designer babies will be unleashed. Will we usher in a world in which qualities such as height and intelligence can be pre-determined by editing or manipulating our genes? Unlikely perhaps, but if it can be conceived or imagined…..well…..???
Apart from the very laudable desire to treat currently untreatable diseases, which germ-line genetic engineering may allow us to do, we are now faced with the ultimate irresistible possibility of possessing power over our own biology and evolutionary direction as a species.
The most we might hope for is that gene-editing will first be required to go through a process of serious informed public debate, including the necessary input and guidance of doctors, scientists, ethicists and religious authorities. If it is proved to be feasible, the process must be stringently governed and regulated. Its use ought to be restricted to dealing with medical needs where no other medical approach is a viable option. A medical approach should not be employed as a solution to a perceived social problem as appears to be the case with Dr He’s reported experiment.
Perhaps the nuclear arms race of the Cold War era may offer us some salutary lessons. As a first step, we may need to acknowledge that we are entering a new kind of race: a genetic arms race. Left to their own devices, national governments and their scientific bodies will most likely rush to adopt the new technology before their adversaries and counterparts do. Funding will flow, advantage will be sought and the arsenal will grow!
Whatever rules, regulations or ethical codes of conduct are put in place to control this technology will likely be vague, loosely worded and unenforceable. Don’t forget that Dr He’s reported experiment involved him defying the unofficial international moratorium on editing human embryos intended for a pregnancy!
It may take the realization that direct experimentation on human beings is as MAD as the Cold War era policy of mutually assured destruction in order for us to achieve global consensus on what to do to avoid endangering the survival of our species.
A decision will soon – very soon - have to be made involving a choice between going down the path of global governance and regulation or opting for self-regulation by the scientific community. Which will stand the most chance of preventing our species rushing headlong into potential disaster or indeed a brave new world of genetic inequality? Whether or not Dr He’s work proves to be valid, at least it may achieve this kind of much needed debate and thoughtful consideration - and that would be a good thing.