The Ethics of Gene Editing
Sophie Ellen Buckland discusses whether it is ethical to change someone’s DNA even if it’s only to ‘cure’ someone of genetic diseases.
The concept of gene editing is not new. Since the 1980s, with the emergence of CRISPR-Cas9 technology, it has been possible to alter DNA and add or remove genes in organisms ranging from bacteria to humans. It remains a controversial topic however, and with the announcement last month that scientists have developed a powerful new gene-editing technique known as “prime editing”, moral and ethical concerns have once more been brought into the limelight.
So-called “designer babies” could have their genes edited to make them more intelligent, athletic, or any number of desirable qualities, and these traits could become the domain of those who can afford them
Gene editing can be split into two main categories: somatic, which involves normal, non-heritable genes in body cells; and germline, involving genes which are passed onto the next generation. Germline gene editing is by far the more controversial of the two, and is banned in over 40 countries with strict limits on research. It has the potential to be an incredibly useful tool for eradicating serious life-limiting illnesses, but there are major concerns over the technology being used for enhancement rather than medical need.
So-called “designer babies” could have their genes edited to make them more intelligent, athletic, or any number of desirable qualities, and these traits could become the domain of those who can afford them — even if editing was purely used for medical conditions, genetic health would be a privilege few would be able to access. The risks of this type of genetic manipulation are not known: removing genes that cause one condition could cause new problems later in life, and it seems unethical to inflict these risks on unborn children and the generations that follow.
Somatic gene editing cannot affect future generations, and is not subject to the same restrictions as germline editing. It has tremendous potential to treat genetic conditions such as cystic fibrosis and sickle cell anaemia, and research is ongoing into its use as a treatment for more genetically complex conditions such cancer and mental health conditions.
There is resistance to this type of gene editing too. One argument is that as it changes our DNA, the foundations of who we are, manipulating it is “playing god”. However all medical interventions alter the body in some way: vaccines affect your immune system, anti-depressants alter brain chemistry, so why is changing DNA seen as crossing a line?
People with conditions such as Down’s Syndrome or mental health conditions have raised concerns that we should be focusing on ways to support people with conditions like these, rather than eradicating them from society.
Both forms of gene editing raise the question, where is the line drawn between treating disease and genetic enhancement? Further still, who decides which conditions should be treated in this way? No one could argue that curing cystic fibrosis could be a bad thing, but people with conditions such as Down’s Syndrome or mental health conditions have raised concerns that we should be focusing on ways to support people with conditions like these, rather than eradicating them from society.
There are no clear cut answers in these debates, and we are not yet at a point where these treatments are in use. But as the science continues to develop so too will the ethical dilemmas it creates, and scientists, ethicists, and indeed governments must all be aware of the risks and opportunities gene editing presents.