The Greater Good: Genetic Research on Human Embryos

The CRISPR/Cas9 gene editing tool hit the market in early 2012. Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats, a mouthful condensed as CRISPR, is a defense mechanism through which bacteria combat viruses, in a battle of atomic proportions, by altering the genetic sequencing of the invasive virus.

Researchers have contrived methods with which the CRISPR tool can be used to modify the genetic material of living organisms. This method of genome editing is far superior to previous methods such as Zinc Finger Nucleases, in that it is more precise, easier to perform, cheaper to acquire, and faster to conduct. From disjoining genetic disorders (e.g. Alzheimer's) from our genes, to altering the genetic configuration of mosquitos to reject malaria, imagination is the limit when considering applications of CRISPR. There is much to be said about the history behind this technology and Michael Specter of The New Yorker does exactly that in his brilliant article The Gene Hackers.

We have in our hands technology that can finally refashion the genetic makeup of progeny. Let's consider the mosquitos mentioned earlier. Using CRISPR researchers at the University of California engineered mosquitos that stop the malaria parasite from growing in them. The hair rising aspect of all this, is that this gene is dominant. Should these mosquitos be released into the wild to breed, their offspring will also be malaria resistant.

2016-02-03-1454537200-5865718-samgrossgeneticengineeringgotusintothismessandgeneticengineeringwillgnewyorkercartoon.jpgSource: Sam Gross, The New Yorker Cartoons

So let's skip past the technicalities. Should CRISPR be used in the modification of human the human genome?

Both Nature and Science, the heaviest of heavyweights in academic journals, carried editorials on discouraging the research of CRISPR on human embryos. Any ill consequence of such research would result in public outcry, stifling an arguably already stifled scientific community. Furthermore, the very systemic ramifications of such edits are barely understood, and incredibly hard to measure, given the impact on future generations. While there are indubitable therapeutic possibilities, particularly in ensuring healthier humans, Lanphier and his colleagues at Nature argue that existing methods such as preimplantation genetic diagnosis (PGD) and in vitro fertilization (IVF) are controls enough to ensure healthy disease free babies. Science proposes an indefinite moratorium on such research until the technology is better understood. There are concerns that CRISPR presents a slippery slope into designer humans, modifying for a blonde, blue-eyed generation.

These arguments hold little water with Savulescu and company of the Oxford University's Uehiro Centre for Ethics. Their argument is that there is a moral obligation to pursue genetic research on human embryos. A ban or moratorium will achieve little, while nudging the scientific community away from present responsibility. They assert that there is insufficient evidence presented in order to justify a ban on genetic research on embryos, and offer an appealing middle ground.

Existing techniques such as IVF and PGD are limited, they argue, to the goodness of genes of the donors (or parents). If carriers of a certain disorder wish to have a child, and successfully select for an unaffected child, this child will nonetheless be a carrier of the disorder - genetic engineering can rectify this.

On non-therapeutic use, the medical procedures LASIK and IVF/PGD are cited. LASIK is used daily for cosmetic purposes. IVF and PGD can be used to select for height and intelligence (and for sex, in less scrupulous nations). Rather than blanket ban research, it is more appropriate to control against using this technology in an unethical manner. To quote the authors, "Technology can and must be controlled by laws, and if it cannot, there is no point in laws - including bans."

The argument that ramifications are ill-understood is circular. All new technologies are inherently unpredictable. This is no cause to halt research - there are enough moratoriums on unsafe research, no further restrictions need be applied to genetic research specifically. They do concede however, that this is the only ethical concern, that is the safety of the techniques being used.

In Spring 2015, researchers in China's Sun Yat-sen University were able to successfully conduct CRISPR/Cas9 tests on non-viable human embryos. Despite being sensationalised in the media as "Chinese researchers have modified human embryos", conjuring images of heartless men in white lab coats, the results were incredibly valuable and the research was praised by most scientists.

Firstly, they highlighted just how incredibly unsafe the CRISPR/Cas9 tool was to use on human embryos. Secondly they used "triploid zygotes", naturally occurring embryos at IVF clinics, that have 0% chance in developing and are therefore never implanted. Finally, they were able to adhere to the strictest of global safety guidelines and pave the way for a workable solution. By using non-viable embryos such as triploid zygotes, Savulescu et. al conclude that there is no moral dilemma present, as the embryos can not be physically brought to term.

The potential behind gene editing research is far too great, to be held back by bans and moratoriums. Advanced gene editing techniques can benefit millions - its research, the authors conclude, is a moral imperative. The profound ethical issues raised are best addressed through debate and the judiciary; legislation to prevent abuse or premature use of this technology.

There's a hint of irony when the scientists call for a halt on research for sake of ethics, and the ethicists call for further research for sake of progress. There is little doubt that gene editing is the medical breakthrough, that when it comes to fruition will be picked up by the therapeutic and cosmetic alike. Till such time however, it is vital that we place our trust in the judiciary, instead of mistrust in our scientists.