Should CRISPR gene therapy be used on humans?
CRISPR (Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats) is a new genetic engineering technique which allows scientists to edit the DNA of almost any living organism. It is becoming increasingly popular throughout the scientific world due to its simple mechanisms and relatively low cost. This has allowed scientists to perform more experiments involving DNA modification, including the exciting, albeit controversial, usage of gene therapy. Scientists hope that CRISPR can be used to cure various genetic diseases, such as sickle-cell anemia, or to repair genes which may cause cancer or other defects.
While gene therapy does have potential in curing disease, some are concerned about the use of this technology beyond medical applications. In particular, the ability to manipulate genes may lead to “designer babies”: parents are able to select certain genetic traits for their children, whether in terms of appearance, physique, intelligence, or other fields. Furthermore, the use of gene therapy may lead to a slippery slope effect, whereby genetic manipulation may be used maliciously, e.g. to create super soldiers.
If you’ve read a few too many dystopian novels, you might immediately jump to the conclusion that governments will use this technology maliciously—e.g. creating super-soldiers. But this is not a realistic threat for today’s military technology. What chance would any human being stand against a tank or a bomb? The reality is that genetics can only do so much. You’ll never find a gene that lets you shoot lasers out of your eyes. And in the same vein, rich people might choose to give their children extreme intelligence, but if they lack other life skills the benefits are minimal.
The other (more realistic) argument against “designer babies” is that it will increase inequality, but this is not as much of an issue as one might think. For starters, it’s not as if the rich aren’t giving their children an advantage already. For every self-made billionaire like Bill Gates, there are a dozen John Rockefeller IIIs who inherited the majority of their wealth.
Furthermore, every major technological leap increases inequality: agriculture, for instance, created an upper class of landowners. And yet, without these advances, we would still be living in caves. What people fail to realize is that although genetic modification technology might make the rich richer, it will also make the poor richer—they’ll have greater protection against disease and genetic disorders, and positive genetic traits will eventually spread across society.
Now, it is true that CRISPR is very much still in development. In its current form, it is not ready for use on human beings. However, every technology takes time and resources to develop, and banning CRISPR out of paranoia is not going to help. Rather than eliminating any incentive for researchers to work on this promising gene therapy technology, we should encourage and actively search for ways we can use it to benefit humanity.
The truth is that many fear genetic modification technology not for rational reasons, but due to gut instinct—an emotional response against things perceived as unnatural or “playing god”. But this is no longer an acceptable attitude today, when people around the world live better lives than ever before because of developments such as electricity, surgery, and vaccination, all of which are very much unnatural. Those who are uncomfortable with the idea of genetic modification are free to abstain from it—but they have no right to deny others from doing the best for their children.
CRISPR has many potential benefits, such as curing certain genetically-influenced diseases. However, there are more controversial uses for it, one being the development of “designer babies” which can be genetically altered in order to give them favoured traits. Alongside the serious safety concerns regarding the usage of CRISPR in human embryos, there is a serious ethical question to be addressed: should we be allowed to “design” humans to fit a preferred image?
For now, the answer to this question is no. Firstly, this technology could potentially create a two-tiered society of haves and have-nots. Children would be genetically engineered to have certain advantages such as increased intelligence or athletic ability. Though one may argue that these differences may already exist in society, this technology would essentially make the deciding factor who your parents are. Rich people would be able to pay the money needed to design their kids in a way that would make them more likely to succeed, which would in turn allow them to design their kids in the same way, and so on. In doing so, a society in which the poor truly have little to no hope of rising to the top is possible.
Aside from these ethical concerns, many technical ones exist. CRISPR does not work with 100% accuracy. For example, there is a risk that a poorly-designed guide mechanism may lead to the enzyme cutting the human genome when unintended. If someone put the enzymes responsible for the process in a virus and a person was exposed to this virus, a poorly designed guide could wreak havoc.
There are also unknown risks that come with editing DNA at the embryonic level. Potential effects could develop later in life which wouldn’t be discovered until this process had already happened to a generation. Unless we are absolutely certain of the long-term effects in humans, we shouldn’t risk using the technology in a manner which is far from necessary.
Overall, CRISPR is a promising technology for the field of genetic engineering, but it is not without its risks. History has shown us with crises such as antibiotic-resistance that quickly adopting a new technology without knowing or being able to control risks can have severe repercussions. Uncontrolled usage of CRISPR in humans could lead to a severely damaged society and potential deaths. Therefore, its use should be limited to procedures that are either necessary or hold insignificant risks to human life.