Hacking the Human Genome. Some of the world’s top scientists gathered this week to consider technology that might alter the course of humankind. Overlooked against that little Climate Change Summit across the Atlantic, The International Summit on Human Gene Editing was held in Washington to tackle questions related to the science and ethics of tinkering with the human genome. These topics have become even more urgent and relevant in recent times – as earlier this year, Chinese scientists edited the genomes of human embryos, a scientific first. For supporters of genetic editing, the technology holds out the promise of eradicating diseases that have plagued humanity for millennia and of creating a stronger, healthier human future. Yet, critics say the practice will create an ethical minefield with as many potential hazards as benefits.
At issue are advanced software tools that can precisely edit genes inside living cells, finding specific sections of DNA to slice and repair or replace, much like a biological version of cut-and-paste software. The biggest ethical quandary about the technology arises over the use of the tools to perform what scientists call “germline” editing – manipulating and altering the DNA of reproductive cells – sperm, eggs or early embryos – to spread gene changes so that the repairs are passed down to any future generations.
The pros of this are incredible – think about wiping about diseases like sickle cell, down’s syndrome, muscular dystrophy, Alzheimer’s and even cancer. A world without debilitating, horrible diseases is the panacea that advocates believe is just around the corner. This would quite literally transform the world of preventative medicine, taking it to the next logical level. On the other side are the staunch critics – they say that we may irrevocably change the path of human evolution and do not understand enough of the complexity of what makes us… well… us. They argue that standard in vitro fertilization techniques (to test the genetics of embryos before they are implanted) are good enough when it comes to detecting the transmission of diseases. And of course, they call attention to the spectre of parents who can afford designer babies with specific traits, and who will willingly pay for progeny that can outperform in the world.
It makes me instantly think of the classic sci-fi film Gattaca, which took a disturbing, detailed look at the very world of genetic engineering, making it as ubiquitous and preemptive as today’s plastic surgery. Make a designer baby in the test tube, throw in perfect health, a maxed-out IQ, a dash of extraordinary EQ, advanced coding capabilities, then mix in a long lifespan, and you have a world where the “bioformed” inherit the earth… and babies who are born by “natural means” get to be menial labourers. Hmmm… maybe we should do a little more research into the overall implications of this one.
Michael Chase, CMO
St. Joseph Communications
RIPPED FROM THE HEADLINES – TAKEN FROM A VARIETY OF SOURCES, INCLUDING THE GUARDIAN 2015
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