An article published yesterday in Nature heralds some exciting new developments in the field of genetics. For the first time, researchers in the U.K. used CRISPR technology to “cut” the gene encoding for a particular protein (OCT4) in a human zygote. The result was compromised blastocyst development—that is, excising OCT4 appeared to forestall the zygote’s ability to develop into an early-stage embryo.
The researchers note that they “cannot be certain that the early developmental arrest is associated with the loss of OCT4” and not due to some other effect resulting from the CRISPR procedure. However, they remain optimistic that this research could herald future insights and developments into our understanding about embryonic development:
In summary, we have developed an optimized approach to target OCT4 in human embryos, thus suggesting that OCT4 has a different function in humans than in mice. This proof of principle lays out a framework for future investigations that could transform our understanding of human biology, thereby leading to improvements in the establishment and therapeutic use of stem cells and in IVF treatments.
Writing for Axios this afternoon, Jennifer Berg responded to these developments by pointing to some of the questions that germline genetic editing will inevitably raise:
Genetic changes to a human embryo are “germ-line” changes that can be passed on to future generations. While that means we wouldn’t have to treat a disease in each subsequent generation, scientists are naturally wary of these types of interventions because we don’t yet understand the long-term repercussions of making a genetic change that will affect more than the original entity.
Gene editing raises the specter of parents manipulating their children, and a Gattaca-type future of haves and have-nots. But these first experiments involved only a change to a single gene in an embryo in a petri dish. Most characteristics parents are likely to want to design involve multiple genes, and environmental interactions. If we can eventually tailor those traits, should we? What things are permissible to alter? And who should control access to this new technology?
Before we implant modified embryos we’ll have to address whether this is acceptable experimentation on pregnant women or the subsequently born child.
Her bottom line? “Science does not translate immediately into practice. We won’t have ‘designer babies’ anytime soon but these are important early studies, and they raise a number of ethical questions. We should consider those questions carefully.” I agree entirely. However, as I pointed out yesterday, simply recommending that we “consider” these questions doesn’t really lead us to any solid policy conclusions. Nor does casting the specter of a “Gattaca-type future of haves and have-nots” lead us to any real solutions to substantive policy questions. Such fears all too often dominate conversations surrounding developments in genetic science—just the same as they do for advancements in AI—and distract from the many near-term promising benefits of this technology. I’m all in favor of having a conversation about the ethical implications of “designer babies.” In the meantime, however, let’s avoid doomsaying rhetoric and focus on safely and effectively advancing the science behind this marvelous and still-emerging technology.
To that end, my recommendation—echoed by policy analysts, leading genetic researchers, and hinted at by the National Academy of Sciences—is for Congress to lift its statutory ban barring the FDA from considering clinical trials of germline edited embryos. That’s a necessary first step to realizing any of the benefits from genetic modification technology, and can help steer conversations about the ethical questions towards actionable policy goals.
Otherwise, we’re doomed to forever endure the purgatory of conversation limbo.