29 November, 2020

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Storm Over Genetically Modified Twins

By Kumar David

Prof. Kumar David

Is it ethically repugnant to modify the gene-code of embryos? Storm over genetically modified twins

There is next to nothing I know about genetics but the Second International Human Genome Editing Summit for 2018 was held at the University of Hong Kong from 27 to 29 November and I took my chance to attend many sessions. The very technical ones were Greek to me but the broader interactions and sessions for the public were great. The conference is a big event (the first was in Washington DC in 2015) and the sponsors include the Royal Society, the US National Academy of Sciences and US National Academy of Medicine. The fun however was on the day before the Summit when scientist He Jiankui of the Southern University of Science and Technology in Shenzhen, just across the border from Hong Kong, described the work his team had done leading to the birth of genetically changed twins Nana and Lulu. He also claimed that another woman was pregnant with a similarly modified child. These are the first known genetically modified humans.

He Jiankui spoke to a packed hall of scientists and the world’s press and as you can guess all hell broke loose. Here are some reactions. Nobel laureate David Baltimore, a Cal-Tech prof emeritus, called it irresponsible: “I think there has been a failure of self-regulation by the scientific community”. David Liu of the Broad Institute, Massachusetts, challenged He Jiankui on how the girls benefited by having their DNA altered. The children were not at risk of contracting HIV at birth he said and there were many other ways to avoid HIV infection later in life. “What was the unmet medical need for these patients?” Liu asked. Matthew Porteus a professor at Stanford declared “He’s already at risk of becoming a pariah. Scientists discuss research plans with colleagues to get feedback years before they set out. Unless he starts to engage in the scientific process it will get worse and worse.”

He Jiankui “Proud of the work that led to birth of genetically changed twins Nana and Lulu”.
Photograph: Imaginechina/Rex/Shutterstock

He Jiankui described how he used a well-known editing process called Crispr-Cas9 to modify a gene called CCR5 in embryos created through IVF for couples with HIV-positive fathers. The modification mirrored a natural mutation found in a small percentage of people which makes them resistant to the virus. He faced a stormy hour-long session and defended himself commendably against angry scientists and the media. He concluded: “I believe that not only in this case but millions of children need this protection since an HIV vaccine is not available. For this I feel proud.”

The crux of the debate is what you might call the fear of a Frankenstein-Creature and to make it worse the genetic change may be heritable, meaning a continuing line of descendants may inherit and carry forward the change. Mary Shelly (1797-1851), wife of English poet Percy Bysshe Shell wrote the tale of a young scientist Victor Frankenstein who created a Creature in his lab. The Creature, hideous to behold, escaped and wrecked much havoc but when Victor tracked it down it pleaded with him to create a female Creature as a companion. Fearful that this could lead to a monster race that could savage mankind Victor refused. Hence the horror that greeted He Jiankui’s gene-edit was defused in this way in Mary Shelly’s famous novel.

Not everyone is negative about changing the DNA of a human embryo to give a child a better chance in life. The Nuffield Council on Bioethics said in July 2018 that it may be “morally permissible” if it was in the child’s interests and did not add to the kinds of inequalities that already divide society. “It is our view that genome editing is not morally unacceptable in itself,” said Karen Yeung, chair of the Nuffield working group and professor of law, ethics and informatics at the University of Birmingham. “There is no reason to rule it out in principle.” Experiments around the world have shown that DNA editing could, in principle, prevent children from inheriting serious diseases caused by faulty genes. Currently the law in most countries including China ban the creation of genetically modified babies. Chinese authorities, soon after his presentation, condemned He Jiankui’s initiatives and it is rumoured that his laboratory has been sealed. 

The prospect of modifying genes in human embryos is controversial since, for a start, the procedure has yet to be proven safe. British researchers found that the most popular tool for editing, Crispr-Cas9 caused damage elsewhere in the DNA. If so, gene editing would disrupt healthy genes though it is meant only to fix faulty ones. Secondly, changes made to an embryo’s DNA would affect all its cells, including the sperm or eggs, thus genetic modifications would be passed down to future generations. DNA editing also raises the possibility of “designer babies”, where the genetic code is knowingly rewritten so that the child has superior traits. The Nuffield report does not rule out any specific uses of genome editing, but says that to be ethical, it must be in the child’s interests and have no ill-effects for society.

George Church, a geneticist at Harvard agreed with the report’s guiding principle that gene editing “should not increase disadvantage, discrimination, or division in society”. But reproductive gene editing, if permitted, will for sure be used for enhancement and for cosmetic purposes which may worsen inequality and social division. So I (KD) ask, will it be possible to stand in the way of a gilded age in which some are genetic ‘haves’ and the rest ‘have-nots’? It won’t be a matter of money since the price tag will plummet like microchips once the technique gets going. I think it’s an open question. We have two dilemmas to think about: (a) can the forward march of gene-technology (or any technology) be stopped, and (b) what is wrong in designing babies to be healthier and smarter?

Can technology be stopped?

Let me start with a bold assertion. There are probably tens of thousands if not more planets in the Milky Way galaxy carrying life forms and at a wild guess it is possible there are a few thousand carrying intelligent life. Multiply this across the universe and the number is daunting. There could well be millions if not billions of places in the universe inhabited by intelligent life. Some may be less and some more evolved than humans. It is reasonable to expect that some may comparatively be super-civilisations a million or many millions of years more evolved than homo sapiens. If such civilisations exist it is certain they would have upgraded their heritance mechanisms. True they may not be carbon-based and may have quite different ‘genetic codes’ (or whatever) than earthbound life forms, but this does not affect my basic hypothesis.

To ramble on, it stands to reason that these supra beings too worried themselves sick like we are doing now whether it is wise to mess around with inheritance mechanisms but found solutions to impediments. It seems to me that thinking long-term it is impossible to stop progress. I think once biotechnology finds ways to fix glitches and prevent undesired distortions, as technology surely will given time, the adoption of these methods will become standard.

The ethics of designer babies

What response can one give to parents who say “Why should I not design my baby to be healthier and smarter?” Pointing to the risks of something going wrong in the genetic engineering process and the baby being in some way misshapen is only a temporary obstacle. Gene splicing and reforming is in its infancy and like all technologies will improve with time. What answer can one give parents once the technology is perfected and the risk has been driven to near zero? Think of laser eye surgery or air travel which have now become everyday things. What about the objection that the changes will be heritable and persist for ever? The parents will reply “Yes of course, that’s the whole point. We want the improvements to persist for all future generations of our children’s children”.

What about the moral objection that one is playing god? The reply is that there are many things that god did not get right, so what’s wrong with fixing them? Take vaccination for example. God forgot to make the immune system resistant to polio and many other diseases so medical science stepped in and fixed it. 

To finish on a general note. What if Chinese parents what to fix the genes of their children to give them and their descendants round instead of slit eyes? What if the English want to engineer their descendants to rid them of a grey-pink pasty hue and endow them with a gorgeous golden brown to put the bikini-clad nuggets on Copacabana Beach to shame? I say wonderful! And what if a future great leader decides to fix our native genes and make Lanka’s populace less stupid when it visits the polling booth? That would be a massive step forward. So, let me leave you with these iconoclastic thoughts to mull over as you sip your Sunday coffee.

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    This comment was removed by a moderator because it didn’t abide by our Comment policy.For more detail see our Comment policy https://www.colombotelegraph.com/index.php/comments-policy-2

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    ‘There is next to nothing I know about genetics’ – like with everything else you write about Kumar, Right?

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    For once I agree with Kumar David. If we can do this for the good of the human race why not?

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    Donno Kumar…..as we evolved from the soil of this earth, best that we follow the natural evolution path that the dimensions of time has to offer, right?
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    From another angle, as the perfection of god might have created us, who are we to go against his design? Shouldn’t be finding out why things like HIV are around in the first place, and taking steps to prevent it? I mean, we remove the HIV gene, and then the damned virus will contort itself to come in another form or something….it will GM itself to survive. Plants, animals, viruses, bacteria all want to live after all, and they have their own mechanisms to ensure their survival.
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    As per beauty and intelligence, it will become sooo commonplace, everybody will eventually start mating with the ugly and stupid gene just to feel more compatible on the evolutionary timeline. Infact, gmo’d beauty and intelligence will become the new ugly and stupid.

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      I see your points Ms Fernando; they are valid and refer to the ethical side. (By the way God gave us brains, so aren’t we entitled to use them to do “scientific wonders” if we can? Parable of the talents).

      But what about the technical-progress side? Can we stop a powerful technology once it gets going?

      (Editor: Pl draw Miss Fdo’s attention to this brief comment)

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        Cold-blooded murder also requires brain-power, Prof. One knows for sure that God and Man don’t allow it.
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        Gene splicing like the atomic bomb, is a marvelous ingenuity of scientific wonder. But the atomic bomb is entirely devastating. For GMO, its devastative properties are not apparent, but when one thinks of the chronology factor of trillions of years that created the building blocks of nature, one can know that one cannot dabble with such fragility in an instant. The domino-effect is impossible to tell, and we can only know through innate quantum perceptibility that it cannot be a good thing.
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        Powerful technologies are only a good thing if they have a helpful effect on humankind. The trouble is, too much of the so called powerful technology are only powerful as they have created a craving in society, like online gaming that creates the dopamine-effect. And we know the detrimental effects of this on our young. Yet it is there to boost up the ever tottering capitalistic process.

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    Wonderfully written article by a truly smart man from Lanka. If Lanka had more people who can write about things of real importance like this, the country could become a better place.

    The gene editing technology is secretly being worked on at a furious pace all over the world, including Russia and China. This was a small “experiment” by the Chinese to see how the world would react to this rather unusual open announcement. Now they know that most scientists are going to blow a fuse at the mere mention of such experiments.

    So this was very helpful the hidden experiments and for future strategy. Its laughable that countries like China and Russia would just stop all research and experiments in gene editing because of “ethical” resistance. As a matter of fact the future genius babies with literally total resistance to known diseases and ailments are being born somewhere. Its a matter of national security for these countries to make sure they don’t fall behind. Lanka should listen to their sons like David and try and work with the Chinese to get some of this technology to the country as soon as possible before the fanatic Islamic Jihadis turn the country into an Islamic republic, kicking it back centuries into an eternal dark Middle Age. Just look at Islamic Republic of Pakistan with its terrible record in everything and how much India has progressed since independence. India too should go for gene editing in a big way so that it can put poorly educated, half crazy and barbaric Moslems hordes of Pakistan and Afghanistan way behind them and become a true world power.

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    OMG! I hope they are not attempting to use Sri Lanka as a testing grounds for GM-babies. They’d tell Ranil that his people show low IQ. Therefore, they’d pay him double the amount he lost in Bond Scam to GM Lankan babies and make them smarter. Colombites will revel in it…..all the money will come to them rather than being spent on educating the godays. The rest of the world will watch to see if Lankans braniac drones will be committed to work, or annihilate themselves.

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