An artist's illustration of a DNA double helix. New technology makes it easy to edit the human genome, even the germline which can affect all of human evolution. (Image:. U.S. National Human Genome Research Institute/Reuters

CRISPR: Ethics and the gene editing of humans

By making genetic research so much easier, the recent technology known as CRISPR has allowed scientists an enormous advantage in research into so many areas.

Unfortunately there’s a downside which raises serious ethical questions.

Françoise Baylis (CM, ONS, PhD, FRSC, FCAHS), is a research professor at Dalhousie University Halifax who has written on the subject.

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The concern with gene-editing is with experiments into modification of human DNA, which could lead in theory to changing of the human genome forever. It could in theory enable creating “designer babies”. Indeed it’s been just over a year since the first genome edited babies were created by a Chinese scientist. A Russian researcher has since announced plans to carry out similar human gene editing experiments.  Other Chinese experiments involve putting human genes into monkeys. All of these, and other potential experiments, have raised the concern of the scientific world that some of its members are going beyond ethical concerns of science.

Research professor Francoise Baylis at Dalhousie University, Halifax

While some experts have expressed concern about state manipulation to create specific characteristics, Professor Baylis suggests that designer babies could result in greater class divide. This would be due to the expense making such technology accessible to the upper echelons and entrenching elite advantage, and thus privilege, in their DNA.

However she says these experiments have resulted in governments and the scientific community coming out with regulations and recommendations to slow down or halt such research until such time as serious ethical discussions take place to establish limits on what should be done and how.

F Baylis on the ethical questions involving CRISPR technology and gene editing of the human genome , Harvard University Press

She says the human genome belongs to “all of us” and any single or small group of scientists shouldn’t be altering it on their own.

“As a direct consequence of increasingly audacious moves by some scientists to engineer future generations, important decisions must now be made —decisions that will set a new course for science, society, and humanity. May these decisions be inclusive and consensual. May they be characterized by wisdom and benevolence. And, may we never lose sight of our responsibilities to ‘us all.’”  F Baylis:’ Altered Inheritance: CRISPR and the Ethics of Human Genome Editing’ F Baylis:’ Altered Inheritance: CRISPR and the Ethics of Human Genome Editing

Fortunately some action has been taken.  The WHO has convened a multi-disciplinary Expert Advisory Committee on Human Genome Editing to “examine the scientific, ethical, social and legal challenges associated with human genome editing (both somatic and germ cell). Professor Baylis is a member of the group which met for the first time this spring.

She lauds those countries that have established regulations regarding such research but notes there is always the chance of “rogue” scientists.

She also notes that scientists are usually very concerned about recognition by their peers and being shunned for having crossed established ethical lines is something they would very likely avoid

Additional information

The Conversation: F Baylis: Dec 10/19: A year after the first CRISPR babies, stricter regulations are now in place

Dalhousie U: (YouTube): F Baylis speech (32min)

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2 comments on “CRISPR: Ethics and the gene editing of humans
  1. Avatar Crystal Boucher says:

    don’t kid yourselves…this is being done by rogue scientists as you say…some scientist will want to be the first one to do this…re’invent the new human or designer as you say….and the best looking, the smartest, brilliant, didn’t hitler try to do this\/this is scary…and i know eventually it will be done…gmo’s are a start are they not\/? and how much control will the rest of the world have over these scientists..giving transgender children!!! hormone treatment is a start..from boy to girl, vs….the pharmaceuticals have already been ‘playing’ with meds and treatments..some good meds and a lot terrible meds..poisoning our bodies, .still out there to be sold….the science movies are a start…the big pharms are always ‘experimenting’..our dogs were given heart worm pills because of a ‘disease’…and a friend working in the big pharms..told me..we are lucky if there was 1 dog in a year in the area who had heartworm…what are scientists doing with umbilical cords? where to draw the line between science to help heal people vs. the ‘find’ to take dna and give it to another to ‘cure’ heal’ …ie. michael fox and his condition…there is a fine line between healing and curing such as cancer for people and the ‘crossing the line’ as you say to ‘invent build create’ like God…humans..too much in a human body i think, to add to creating another human god-made person.lab-made….i am not a scientist, did not study science in high school…only subject now at 79 is too interesting yet distressing to me to think that as a mother 79, my grandchild might in the future ‘have in her or his lab genes able to create a lab created human, what dangerous abilities could be involved…right now there are marvelous experiments such as artificial legs, arms, embryos, eggs being grown in cells, eggs being sold, sperm banks, all beneficial for women who cannot carry children or have children…good…but science does not stop there..always learning….the whole purpose of science i think is to keep on going…and finding out what makes the body ‘tick’? as my son once told me at 2 years old, why did you pull the leg of the frog? his 2 year old response..’\i wanted to see how ‘he worked’…..crystal p.s. this is only what i see…in my view…if only for ‘the good of people’…not a master race, or frankenstiens…
    this may be the new world..the scientists world…but not created by the God who created us …or will this be the new planet..? are we gods, am i a god, after all i did ‘create’ and grow a ‘human being’..in my belly, .hopefully the ‘natural way’ …scares me to think that one day, my way of ‘creating’ will not be in existence…do we replace God,? is there a God? is this knowledge from our God?or my God? the God i come to know…
    will a piece of my flesh, dna, that some doctor has sliced from my body, or a tumor, a cyst (also for learning to find out info on disease in a tumor, cancer, etc\)…will that piece of flesh be used to treat another or now, maybe the possibility to extract whatever from my piece of flesh dna, and create? is that piece of my dna ‘able to create a lab science human? science is very intrigueing, exciting, scary, … too late, i wished i had been smart enough to have had the capability and opportunity to have been a scientist..would \i have been the first?
    Crystal

  2. Avatar J Drapeau says:

    Pretty scary stuff. sounds like we’re messing with forces (nature/God) which we have no understanding about. The potential for misuse is huge, the potential for unforseen consequences also huge