CRSPR and Bioethics: How the science of what we can do can dangerously outstrip the ethics of what we should do

@Reg mentioned this briefly in another thread, and it seems worthy of discussion.

All of you are probably familiar with the rapid advance of gene sequencing technology within the past two decades.  What you might not be aware of is the recent introduction of low-cost technology for EDITING gene sequences.  

Yes, you heard that right.  It's now well within the financial capability of a typical high school lab or a home hobbyist to do gene editing on living organisms.  In fact, a Chinese team has recently demonstrated editing of the heritable human genome...  in other words, it's easy to introduce gene edits to humanity that can propagate on their own through natural reproduction.

This is well outside my field, but this seems enormously terrifying.  First, because I know the sorts of mistakes that grad students and post-docs can make.  Second because we've also demonstrated in the last year that readily available flu viruses are only a few mutations/edits away from being truly devastating pandemic viruses.  It's true that thus far we haven't had any bad incidents largely because only major corporations and government-funded research could do this stuff, and because life tends to be very fragile.  Dangerous edits tend to die out very quickly if they survive at all. 

This week there's a major international conference on this issue, and the inventor of CRISPR has called for a halt to at least heritable human genome editing.

There's great potential for this work as well, in terms of curing genetic diseases; there's also great potential for abuse in terms of creating "designer babies".

How would you decide?  Should this technology be widely disseminated?  Should there be limits to its use?  If so, what limits, and on what basis would you make that decision?

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Thanks Dr. Bob, I was going to post it later myself. I was surprised that my initial reaction on hearing it was not that it can be done but that it is now relatively easy to do. It would not be an expensive operation to carry out if a reasonably well off couple were to have (say) the gene that carried their “deafness” altered to stop it being inherited…….and while you are doing it would you mind making him 6 feet tall with “fast twitch” muscles to improve his running speed and double his potential arm muscle strength.

Personally, I'm not against "designed babies" as a concept... I don't think technology or our understanding of the genome is sufficient to warrant that sort of thing yet anyway. For me, the most alarming thing is that people can tinker with existing viruses and bacteria (and fungus?) and potentially make existing treatments ineffective, or increase the fatality, or infection rate. Again, I don't think our knowledge of how DNA works is sufficient to be able to do anything but simple changes like copying sections or tinkering with individual pieces without entering into a trial and error scenario.

When people can engineer whole gene sequences to perform specific tasks, I'll be very worried. Until then, I think it's just tinkering with existing genes trying to figure out what's going on.

@Dr Bob,

I was recently reading about this as a potential solution to soften violent (incarcerated) criminals with genetic predisposition towards violence.

My 6 year old son Unfortunately has this genetic make up. He is already being physically combative towards me and other children.

If available I would shut this part of his genetic code down in a heartbeat.

It is being talked about as a remedy for PTSD sufferers (like me and my son) and I would do that too in a heart beat....

My 6 year old son Unfortunately has this genetic make up.

@Belle, you have actually had a full gene sequencing done on your son to test for this?  Or is this just something you're guessing as an explanation for his behavior?

The problem with humans and behavior is that genetics at best determines a predisposition.  The human brain in infancy and throughout development is remarkably plastic, and almost all behaviors are more strongly based on environmental factors.  Indeed, even many physical issues are more functional genomic not merely genetic - it takes environmental triggers to activate the respective genes.

If available I would shut this part of his genetic code down in a heartbeat.

That terrifies me.  Organisms are not computer code.  You can't just "shut down" one digital item when it comes to something like behavioral responses.  You're affecting all kinds of protein synthesis and other aspects of development in unpredictable ways.

More to the point, here in the U.S. we already have an epidemic of parents drugging their kids with methamphetamine analogs for behavioral reasons.  I've known parents that have shopped through 6-8 doctors in order to find one that will give an ADHD diagnosis so that they can drug their kids... without any care or thought for the long-term developmental impacts.  

To imagine parents gene-editing their kids for behavioral reasons is horrifying; to imagine forcibly gene-editing criminals should be a crime against humanity.

If we look at places like China where state policy interacts with family and cultural preference just through abortion and not genetic manipulation, we see what amounts to a spectacular war on women, with staggering numbers of girls terminated in utero.   Do we really expect anything different if states allow parents to genetically manipulate their kids?  Or worse, if we allow states to do this without consent to sub-groups of the population?

I doubt if you could edit his genes to modify HIS behavior. He already is who he is, genetically. You might modify the chromosomes he could pass on to a test tube generation. 

Am I understanding this technology correctly?

The whole sexual attraction, picking a mate thing is about designing babies. Its not like that can't go horribly wrong.


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