Developed in 2012 by scientists at the University of California at Berkeley, “CRISPR” is a procedure that could allow scientists to edit the human genome more cheaply and effectively than ever before. Since its introduction, much has been speculated about the double-edged nature of the technology: It could bring about an end to some of humanity’s worst diseases, but it could also bring about the dystopia of genetically modified humans and “superbabies.”
The scientific community and the public at large were shocked to hear this November a scientist from China, Dr. He Jiankui, claim he had used CRISPR gene editing to prevent a pair of twin girls from ever being able to contract HIV. His justification for this ethically murky procedure was that, because their father was HIV-positive, the CRISPR gene-editing experiment had greatly increased their chances for long and healthy lives.
Yet, many scientists were appalled at the sheer negligence with which the experiment was performed. With multiple other proven and safe methods to prevent the transmission of HIV from the father to offspring, it seems that Dr. He unnecessarily invoked a procedure with unknown complications and ethical implications.
With CRISPR research continuing across the globe (and in academic institutions like Penn) his work has brought about questions on the unencumbered growth of scientific advancements and the need for ethicists to act as a check to innovation.
At Penn, for example, CRISPR is being used for immunology research. The lab where I work is a great representation of this where cells are being programmed to have certain genes that may be useful in enhancing the immune system. Some researchers at Penn are even discovering ways to use CRISPR to reprogram body cells to kill cancer cells. However, it is important to distinguish between these studies that use CRISPR (which simply edit cells to create a novel way of fighting an incurable disease) with those that affect the germ line of human cells (meaning traits can be passed down to future generations). This latter type of CRISPR use has already popped up in major academic institutions like Harvard University where sperm cells are being edited in the hope of diminishing the chances of certain diseases arising in ensuing offspring.
Despite the harsh condemnation from those in the industry, there is little to say that another Dr. He won’t show up in another part of the world. What makes CRISPR so outstanding is how cheap and simple it is to use. Though Dr. He has yet to publish data to confirm that he has performed the procedure, many already believe his claims to be true because of how simple it would be to use CRISPR to genetically modify an embryo. So it is more than likely that CRISPR clinics could begin to pop-up around the United States (though CRISPR is technically regulated by the FDA, the hazy nature of the policy leaves room for significant loopholes and possible judicial appeals).
This direct editing of the genome of future generations could eventually lead to parents paying for genetically engineered babies who could grow to have the athleticism of Lebron James athleticism or the IQ of Albert Einstein. As long as people are willing to pay for it, the simplicity of the procedure means that someone will be willing to do it.
As we look at research institutions now and wonder how we can prevent such a world from coming into fruition, the need for ethicists becomes outstandingly clear. Medical or bioethicists analyze the growth of the scientific industry and anticipate possible scruples that may arise with the advent of certain technologies. Bioethicists were the ones who brought to light egregiously immoral studies like the Tuskegee syphilis study or Willowbrook hepatitis experiments. Bioethicists helped establish the principle of informed consent. And at Penn, ethicists have argued the murky morals that come with granting exemptions to vaccinating kids or the spiraling prices of prescription drugs.
Yet in a time when STEM majors and expertises are being prioritized over that of the humanities, there is a serious danger that the unprecedented growth of technology will outpace the speed that ethicists can regulate it. Dr. He’s experiment highlights more than ever the need of humanities expertise to counterpart the growing field of science. An ethical check on this erratic progression of science will be necessary now more than ever, as technology brings ethical nightmares out of the realm of science fiction, and into reality.
SIREESH RAMESH is a College freshman from Alpharetta, Ga. His email address is email@example.com.
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