The White House Calls for Scientists to Hold Off on Human Gene Editing

Tuesday, 26 May 2015 - 4:02PM
Genetic Engineering
Dystopias
Tuesday, 26 May 2015 - 4:02PM
The White House Calls for Scientists to Hold Off on Human Gene Editing
Last month, Chinese scientists claimed that they had altered the human genome for the first time in history, causing a storm of controversy in the scientific community. Now, the White House has seen fit to weigh in, and has released a statement asserting that the alteration of the human germline- the genetic material that can be passed on to future generations- is "a line that should not be crossed at this time."

The advances in health technology over the past century - vaccines, antibiotics, early disease diagnostics, and treatment for countless health conditions - have reduced infant mortality, extended life expectancy, and alleviated suffering for millions. But new technology also brings risks and ethical challenges that require careful consideration...

Research along these lines raises serious and urgent questions about the potential implications for clinical applications that could lead to genetically altered humans. The full implications of such a step could not be known until a number of generations had inherited the genetic changes made - and choices made in one country could affect all of us.


The statement was released in response to a recent study conducted by scientists at the University in Guangzhou, in which a research team successfully modified the genetic material of human embryos in order to cure a heritable and often fatal blood disorder. Although the embryos used in the experiment were non-viable, or would never have resulted in a human life, there were still many ethical objections raised in the wake of the results, with many scientific organizations calling for an immediate moratorium on the research.

And the ethical considerations can't be ignored. First, the modification was not successful in all of the embryos, and the researchers themselves admitted that the technology could lead to "untoward mutations" that could be passed down to future generations. Furthermore, even if the flaws in the technique were corrected, advancements in this field could lead to a dystopian "master race" of designer babies. 

But, that being said, the researchers did use non-viable embryos for a reason; no one is claiming that the technology is ready for testing on living, breathing human beings. A summit has already been called by the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) and its National Academy of Medicine (NAM) to discuss the ethical implications, which the White House "fully supports." So if the White House is simply saying that we should hold off on live test subjects until all the kinks in the technology are worked out, then that seems fairly inarguable.

But if they're arguing that the research itself should stop for fear that there could be unforeseen consequences, that seems unnecessarily reactive. As they said themselves in the above statement, every medical technology which we take for granted today was likely frightening and foreign at first, but our quality of life has been significantly improved because scientists continued to pursue those avenues of thought.

Via NBC News.
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