Everyday we get to hear more about the progress in biomedical sciences that are going on around the world. One such branch is genetics—which is growing by leaps and bounds.
Progression in genetic research is also accompanied by ethical dilemmas as there are no defined boundaries in genetic research yet. This manipulation of genes—gene editing—has both pros and cons and scientists all over the world are pondering over this dilemma.
What is gene editing?
Gene editing is the technology dealing with the manipulation of genetic material such that parts of genes are inserted, replaced, or deleted. The latest approach to gene editing is through CRISPR-Cas9 i.e. Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats and CRISPR-associated protein 9. These innovations in gene editing are safer, effective, more precise and cheaper than traditional genome editing tools.
Genetically edited human babies:
In November 2018, a scientist in China, He Jiankui of Shenzhen, claimed that he had managed to use CRISPR-Cas9 system to make genetically edited human babies. He claimed that he had edited the genes of twin girls to add a trait of resistance against HIV infection. This type of gene manipulation is not allowed in the US as it is deemed harmful for other genes.
These claims have not been confirmed by other scientists, but there were mixed reactions to this news, ranging from strongly positive to strongly negative.
Pros and Cons of gene editing:
Pros:People who support gene editing argue that its benefits far outweigh its harms. Gene editing can be used to abolish genetic and other diseases—such as Huntington’s disease, heart disease, Alzheimer’s disease, cystic fibrosis etc.
Gene manipulation can certainly rid the patient of these diseases, and the people who support gene editing say that it is unfair to delay this therapy for the people who are suffering everyday.
Another use of gene editing could be to make a more genetically enhanced human being, just like designer babies. Traits such as eye color, height and memory could be enhanced using this technique. However, even scientists are cautious about this approach towards gene editing. As Sheldon Krimsy of Tufts University states, genome is an ecosystem. In increasing one type of trait, another may get affected.
Cons:On the other hand, people who do not support gene editing say that it is similar to playing God. There is a lot of ethical ambiguity when it comes to gene editing. If we are opening the door to disease elimination, we are also opening it for manipulation of traits, say for instance, height. If there are no set guidelines and limitations to gene manipulation, then we would see its use in unnecessary enhancement purposes as well.
People not supporting gene therapy argue that it would be unfair to future generations to edit their genes and interfere with nature without their consent. If an adult’s genes are manipulated, those changes are not passed down in the future generation.
However, if the genes of the egg or sperm are edited, then those changes would trickle down the generations. As such, a mistake made in genetic editing would also be hereditary and the future generations would bear the brunt of this mistake.
In conclusion, gene editing is a technique that is still evolving. There are a lot of ethical issues that are yet to be determined by scientists before this technique could be mainstreamed.
Most countries are cautious about allowing this technique to be performed on humans, but many are taking a step forth and permitting research on humans due to its massive potential in curing certain diseases.
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