Monday, March 09, 2015

We can alter human heredity, therefore we should? NOT!

An atheist I am, yes, but a committed humanist.  In so many different ways, as many posts would have revealed, I am trying my best to understand what it means to be human, and what my place is in this universe whose vastness I cannot even begin to imagine.  If Earth itself is nothing but "a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam" and I am nothing but a mote of dust on Earth, then, it is wildly crazy how trivial I am in this universe. Which is all the more why it is important for me to understand what my existence means.

This humanist with deep values has never been a fan of many technological advancements, especially the ones that deal with fertilization, pregnancy, and childbirth.  Reducing human existence to its material components and then assembling them in labs is not one that gets to my interpretation of what it means to be human.  Yes, it might be strange that an atheist cares only about the old-fashioned ways of creating babies.  But, again, I am a committed humanist.  In the Carl Sagan tradition.  (What was Sagan's stand on IVF?  I don't know. I don't care either--because I make up my own mind on these matters and do not merely follow a leader!)

When I am not a fan of IVF (but this atheist knows not of a single convincing reason that he can provide to ban that either,) you can easily imagine that I am not at all in favor of genetic engineering, which is now getting more and more realistic.  And, thus, why I am so freaked out about what I read in MIT Technology Review: "Engineering the Perfect Baby."

Holy crap!

What does this mean, you ask?  Hold on tight:
“Germ line” is biologists’ jargon for the egg and sperm, which combine to form an embryo. By editing the DNA of these cells or the embryo itself, it could be possible to correct disease genes and to pass those genetic fixes on to future generations. Such a technology could be used to rid families of scourges like cystic fibrosis. It might also be possible to install genes that offer lifelong protection against infection, Alzheimer’s, and, Yang told me, maybe the effects of aging. These would be history-making medical advances that could be as important to this century as vaccines were to the last.
Why freak out about this?  Because you can easily imagine what this could lead to. If you can't imagine, here it is:
The fear is that germ line engineering is a path toward a dystopia of super people and designer babies for those who can afford it. Want a child with blue eyes and blond hair? Why not design a highly intelligent group of people who could be tomorrow’s leaders and scientists?
You are now thinking, "meh! I have heard this before."  Indeed.  But, that "before"was all about the theoretical possibilities.  Now, we are getting closer and closer to making it happen.
human germ line engineering has become a burgeoning research concept. At least one other center in Boston is working on it, as are scientists in China, in the U.K., and at a biotechnology company called OvaScience, based in Cambridge, Massachusetts, that boasts some of the world’s leading fertility doctors on its advisory board.
The objective of these groups is to demonstrate that it’s possible to produce children free of specific genes that cause inherited disease. If it’s possible to correct the DNA in a woman’s egg, or a man’s sperm, those cells could be used in an in vitro fertilization (IVF) clinic to produce an embryo and then a child. It might also be possible to directly edit the DNA of an early-stage IVF embryo using CRISPR. Several people interviewed by MIT Technology Review said that such experiments had already been carried out in China and that results describing edited embryos were pending publication. These people didn’t wish to comment publicly because the papers are under review.
All this means that germ line engineering is much farther along than anyone imagined. “What you are talking about is a major issue for all humanity,” says Merle Berger, one of the founders of Boston IVF, a network of fertility clinics that is among the largest in the world and helps more than a thousand women get pregnant each year. “It would be the biggest thing that ever happened in our field,” he says. Berger predicts that repairing genes for serious inherited disease will win wide public acceptance, but beyond that, the technology would cause a public uproar because “everyone would want the perfect child” and it could lead to picking and choosing eye color and eventually intelligence. “These are things we talk about all the time. But we have never had the opportunity to do it.”
Are you also freaking out now?  You should be.
(BTW, CRISPR is s "powerful technology for editing DNA." For precise modifications.)
CRISPR can do more than eliminate disease genes. It can lead to augmentation. At meetings of groups of people known as “transhumanists,” who are interested in next steps for human evolution, Church likes to show a slide on which he lists naturally occurring variants of around 10 genes that, when people are born with them, give them extraordinary qualities or resistance to disease. One makes your bones so hard they’ll break a surgical drill.
 How about now?  Are you freaking out thinking about an unbreakable boned X-Men?
Rewriting human heredity has always been a theoretical possibility. Suddenly it’s a real one. But wasn’t the point always to understand and control our own biology—to become masters over the processes that created us?
Doudna says she is also thinking about these issues. “It cuts to the core of who we are as people, and it makes you ask if humans should be exercising that kind of power. There are moral and ethical issues, but one of the profound questions is just the appreciation that if germ line editing is conducted in humans, that is changing human evolution,” Doudna told me. One reason she feels the research should stop is to give scientists a chance to spend more time explaining what their next steps could be. “Most of the public,” she says, “does not appreciate what is coming.”
Most of the public don't have a clue. And worse, don't spend even a minute wondering, contemplating, studying, about what it means to be human.

Yet again, I can't thank the countdown enough!


4 comments:

Anne in Salem said...

Did you see the article about Britain's parliament considering allowing 3-parent babies: http://www.theguardian.com/science/2014/dec/17/three-parent-babies-uk-mitochondrial-transfer-dna-ivf

I sure hope shortness isn't deemed unacceptable, or my progeny could be doomed.

It is just wrong and has frightening and disturbing potentialities.

Sriram Khé said...

Yes, the 3-parent baby thing ... I was shocked at how it was passing through the political process in the UK. The Economist applauded the idea and the government's/parliaments' ok. (not considering--it was done a month ago.)

Yep ... disturbing potentials ... I say all this is happening so fast only because the people (and therefore the politicians) don't seem to worry too much about thinking about and articulating what it means to be human.

Ramesh said...

This is a gut wrenching dilemma. I completely agree with you that we should, in general, leave genetic engineering completely alone. Quite apart from designer babies, it is also suicidal for the human race to move towards homogeneity - long term survival and adaptability depends on diversity, not homogeneity.

The dilemma comes when its a potential cure for dangerous illnesses that are hereditary. In that way, it is no different from a medical cure where you interefere with the human body. I am sure that is the ethical position scientists took when they started the research. s in nuclear science, once the frontier is breached, you also release potentially disastrous consequences.

Now that the genie is out of the bottle, I suppose the debate ought to proceed on what sort of genetic tinkering to be allowed and wht to be banned.

Sriram Khé said...

As far as I am concerned, the genie was released way back with the first test tube baby.
BTW, I find it so strange that humans are ok with such radical, profound changes, but would rather duke it out over the science and ethics of, for instance, GMOs and vaccination!

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