Geneticists Think We Need More Regulation to Prevent "Brave New World" Gene Editing

Thursday, 03 December 2015 - 2:44PM
Technology
Genetic Engineering
Thursday, 03 December 2015 - 2:44PM
Geneticists Think We Need More Regulation to Prevent "Brave New World" Gene Editing
This week is the International Summit on Human Gene Editing, and geneticists are primarily discussing the wider ramifications of- what else?- CRISPR. CRISPR is making gene editing easier and more targeted than ever before, but as the technology advances, geneticists are concerned that more comprehensive regulation is needed. If transhumanists use CRISPR to enhance themselves before the tech is fully ready, or before the world is ready for it. 

Transhumanism is a movement that aims to use technology and other scientific advancements to enhance the human condition. With regard to gene editing specifically, they believe it can be used to eliminate genetic diseases, and more controversially, to create "designer babies," make existing humans smarter and/or stronger, and even prevent aging to achieve virtual immortality. According to George Daley of Boston Children's Hospital, who spoke at the summit yesterday, there's a chance that transhumanists could use CRISPR, if it becomes widely available, to change the human germline to create some sort of "master race," which could turn people off to the more altruistic applications of the technology.

Opening quote
"We're probably going to need new international oversight structures so that we don't realize these dystopian Brave New World examples," Daley said.
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According to Daley and George Church, a researcher at Harvard University, people outside of the transhumanism movement are already demonstrating the willingness to enhance themselves with still-experimental methods. Athletes, for example, have been proven to take stem cell treatments in order to recover from injury faster. Lance Armstrong injected himself with the hormone erythropoietin, and geneticists contend that we could potentially be genetically modified to produce more of it naturally. 

Opening quote
"Why depend on injecting yourself with erythropoietin if you wanted to win the Tour de France?" Daley said. "Why not just modify your hematopoietic stem cells to produce more erythropoietin?"
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Church and Daley claim that it is unrealistic to expect people to refrain from this type of self-modification on moral grounds, or even because they're fearful of experimental technology.

Opening quote
"I'm thinking of it as more of a slippery slope," Church said. Regarding people using CRISPR to augment themselves or their children, "some people say 'I can't imagine it happening' And I say, 'You have to imagine it happening.'"
Closing quote

Conservatives in the genetics field have called for a ban on gene editing altogether, claiming that it is unethical and there could be unforeseen consequences. On the other end of the spectrum, voices in the transhumanism movement are opposed to any type of obstacle towards the usage of gene editing technology to improve the human race.

Opening quote
"Despite some people saying CRISPR technology could lead to dangerous outcomes for the human race, the positive possibilities far outweigh any dangers," prominent transhumanist Zoltan Istvan told Motherboard. "With this type of gene editing tech we have a chance to wipe out hereditary diseases and conditions that plague humanity. And we could also modify the human being to be much stronger and functional than it is. CRISPR could be one of the most important scientific advancements of the 21st Century. We should embrace it."
Closing quote

Geneticists such as Church and Daley take more of a middle-of-the-road approach, agreeing that the technology is worth exploring in order to eradicate genetic diseases, but also conceding that regulation is necessary, as there are many ethical questions that must be answered.

Opening quote
"There are some who are going to say, 'No we shouldn't go through that exercise at all-the technology has no real legitimate uses, therefore we don't have to worry, we just ban it,'" Daley said. "But I think we want a more nuanced argument than that. And that is, I think, what we're trying to figure out here."
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