Someone once asked James Watson, one of the two scientists to discover the popular double helical structure of DNA, if genetic technology was indeed trying to play God.
“If we don’t play God, who will?” was his cool reply.
The genetic engineering debate has been brewing hot since the very first cloned animal was created by scientists after years of ground-breaking research. Dolly the sheep was the first cloned mammal born in a laboratory in Scotland whose image has become quintessential to almost every presentation on genetic technology. Human cloning, however, has been a topic of intense global argument, both within and without the scientific community. An atmosphere of paranoia, often justified, has surrounded the science of gene editing in humans. The 1997 film “Gattaca” elegantly captured the dystopia of the unprecedented impact that such technology can have on our society where humans are turned into designed specimens controlled by a global autocratic regime. Such an overwhelming story might seem a bit too far-fetched, but the immediate concerns associated with seemingly benign applications of gene editing in humans are not be ignored.
The latest shock came as Chinese researcher He Jiankui claimed to have created the world’s first gene edited babies using CRISPR-Cas9 which, according to him, will make these kids immune to diseases like HIV/AIDS. So, what really are the implications of this breakthrough, if at all it is true?
First of all, CRISPR technology itself is prone to skepticism for its side-effects when used for genome editing. The Cas9 protein, used to knock out certain ‘unwanted’ or defective genes, may also deactivate sequences which are essential for cell growth and survival, leaving the host cell, or the organism vulnerable. Moreover, Cas9 itself is a bacterial protein and there’s always a possibility that it can trigger an unexpected immune response if introduced in a living system such as humans. Even if the Cas9 system manages to fight against infections like HIV, the implications of such a molecular conflict occurring in a living human body are uncertain, to say the least.
Moving on to the ethical and so-called ‘philosophical’ side of the argument, editing a human embryo will open up debates about the very nature of being human. Although a purely medical use of genome editing can bring about a revolution in healthcare, it will also gradually push humanity to the threshold of eugenics where kids will be ‘manufactured’ to have all the favorable traits by providing them with only the best forms of DNA. If that does happen, we will be thrown into a world where the haves and have-nots will witness a new milestone in their social hierarchy- those who can afford genetic technology to improve their lives and those who will be left in an even more impoverished state than before. In Marxian terminology, we might see the rise of a new bourgeoisie dominating the global order, both economically and politically.
Nonetheless, as a prospective scientist, I am also extremely hopeful about the kind of progress we can make, if united we work towards a controlled and judicious use of this magic wand called genetics. What we do need is a consensus among researchers, policy makers, philosophers, and social scientists regarding the future of genome engineering. If He is being honest about his research, he should be able to justify the risks he has subjected the babies to by modifying their DNA using a technique which is yet to achieve a hundred percent approval in animal models. Science is a great tool for growth, but it is also full of dangers which can lead to the sort of crisis that we may not be prepared for. As scientists, our first responsibility is to avoid sensationalising research and to make sure that scientific progress is also conscious of its ethical and social implications. Only then we can extract the best that knowledge has to offer.