EYE 2 EYE : Is genetic editing the future of medicine?


~ Both agree that there should be more testing before this technology is implemented for humans ~ Both agree that this technology should be used responsibly ~ Both agree that there would have to be clear regulations in order to ensure the medical field is using genetic editing ethically

Yes : To save lives, we can play God

Anusha Rao

The future of medicine lies in the lives of two newborn babies.

Twin girls were born in China on Nov. 26. They were identical in every way, down to their DNA. During the first 3–5 days of their conception, Dr. Jiankui He genetically edited the HIV gene out of the girls’ DNA that they inherited from their father. With this preventive measure, Dr. He tried to ensure that the girls are resistant to the disease in the future.

The twins were born safely, but the procedure’s side effects are still unknown because this procedure has never been performed on embryos before, prompting outrage from the science community.

Genetic editing, when conducted ethically, is a powerful weapon for good. In order to edit DNA, scientists inject an enzyme known as Cas9 into the body with a tool known as CRISPR. The enzyme targets the section of DNA that needs to be cut out and replicates this process throughout the DNA strands.

But, we must ask the question, are we going too far using technology like this? I believe the answer is no. If we harness this tool with honesty, by following medical guidelines, we can actually save lives all over the world.

Genetic editing may seem too futuristic for some, but the concept is closer to our present than you think. Scientists and psychologists have been conducting tests on mice for years, exploring the possible side effects. One such successful trial on mice aimed to stave off fatty molecules in the ear that can cause deafness in humans as well. The real use of genetic editing lies in the future: to save the lives of babies who may be born with serious genetic diseases.

According to Global Genes, a company that raises awareness on inherited diseases, 30 million people have genetic diseases in the United States alone, with potentially double the number developing these diseases congenitally. The number one killer in the United States, heart disease, can be hereditary. By cutting out a possibly fatal gene from these children, scientists have the ability to save countless lives.

The applications for this technology can operate in agriculture, too. In areas that struggle with famine, drought and war, such as East Africa, genetic editing can allow crops to withstand harsh weather conditions and disease. According to the humanitarian organization, World Vision, in 2017, one million children were likely to die from malnutrition in Africa due to a shortage in crops. With genetic editing making crops more drought resistant, many of those lives could be saved.

So, that leads us to the elephant in the room: if this technology is so amazing, then how come everyone is infuriated at that Chinese scientist for doing the “right” thing? Well, the answer is two-fold.

While, yes, he did potentially save the lives of these two girls by making it so they can’t be infected with HIV, he may have also shortened their lives. The side effects of such a monumental procedure have resulted in early liver failure before, according to the trials done on mice. There is no way of knowing if the girls will be impacted in the future because such a risky trial has never been performed on humans. These altered genes may mutate when passed down to further generations, creating unforeseen problems.

Well, yet again, what is the big overhanging problem here that prevents this scientific endeavor from being further explored? Morality. Ethics. Values.

Simply put, we’re humans with a history of questionable morals. There is legitimate concern that this technology could lead to the production of “designer babies,” outfitted with specifications chosen by the parents. Opponents question if editing genes out of embryos is “playing God.” Other challengers claim that “ludicrous” ideas such as if we can really live forever could become more than hypothetical.

The truth is, however, that if we stick to our core values of saving lives, a scientific Hippocratic oath, tools such as CRISPR can be used for genuine assistance rather than cosmetic touch-ups. If we must play God to save a life, so be it.

For centuries, doctors have made difficult calls regarding life and death. But we must decide: if given the ability, should we slip our hands into the gloves of God to cure any ailments we can? As with many things in today’s world, the rules and ethics of manipulating biology are hazy. But that doesn’t mean we can’t allow our values to guide the way.

If we choose correctly and allow genetic editing to continue being carefully researched, our new values may end up shaping the future of the world we leave behind.

No : Genetic Modification Puts Our Future in Danger

Ellie Hand

In 1953, biologist James Watson and physicist Francis Crick’s discovery of DNA’s molecular structure set the stage for the field of genomics. Now, 66 years later, we are in an era where modifying genetic code is being done daily.

We’ve already breached plant genetics. However, it is a tremendous scientific breakthrough to know medical professionals are on the cusp of being able to modify human genes. Unfortunately, there has been little-to-no testing conducted in order for us to determine the risks of this process.

Although it seems to be an innovative advancement in science, the ethics and potential consequences of genetic engineering technology may cause a great deal of damage not just to the individual, but to the future of our society.

One of the primary risks around the topic of gene editing arises with the potential for unintended or off-target effects. The goal of gene editing is to modify specific DNA sequences, resulting in target mutations. Unfortunately, there is a possibility that DNA sequences other than the target ones could be changed as well.

Imagine going into surgery for a tonsillectomy and accidentally having a kidney removed too. This is a common analogy used for what happens with there are off-target effects of gene editing. It is a very concerning and scary possibility. For example, off-target effects have been experienced within all three types of gene editing, and it is not yet clear how big the issue is.

The rise of CRISPR technology has been a topic of concern. CRISPR-Cas9, (clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats and CRISPR-associated protein 9) has generated a lot of excitement in the scientific community because it is faster, cheaper, more accurate and more efficient than other existing genome editing methods. However, editing genes with CRISPR-Cas9, especially in embryos, could cause numerous unintended mutations.

Imagine if this technology were to fall into the wrong hands.

In 2016, the former Director of National Intelligence, James Clapper, mentioned gene editing as a new global danger in his testimony to the Senate Armed Services Committee along with listing the technology as a potential weapon of mass destruction. Gene editing could be used to genetically engineer bacteria or viruses to be used in biological attacks against humans or to cause widespread crop damages.

Some may say that genetic editing could aid in preventing genetic diseases and disorders like sickle cell anemia and cystic fibrosis. This is the main force luring scientists to this field. Even so, to think that doctors and other users of the technology would never abuse it is simply naive.

Beauty standards have been a central influence since the beginning of time. Doctors or others with access to this technology can easily “play God” and manipulate genes cosmetically. Performing these touch-ups would be drastic, especially if it were up to the choice of the parents and not their unborn child. An easy mistake could change their life immediately as the result of a ‘designer baby.’

The biggest fear of all is that genetic modification could be used to change what it means to be human. If we all become one identical copy of the other and become what we perceive as ideal, our society will turn into a dystopian nightmare. If you’ve ever read “1984” by George Orwell, “Fahrenheit 451” by Ray Bradbury or “The Handmaid’s Tale” by Margaret Atwood, you know how that ends.

Overall, genetic modification on humans will have an extremely negative impact if implemented. Technology such as CRISPR should be thoroughly tested before even being considered for release into the medical field. If released, there should be heavy regulations that limit its use.

Our security, diversity and overall well-being is a priority. If challenged with this technology, our chances of upholding these pillars of humanity will be jeopardized.