The Rise of CRISPR Babies: The Ethics and Implications of Gene Editing
The potential to edit or alter genes has long been a subject of science fiction. But now thanks to a technology known as CRISPR (Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats), gene editing has become a reality. In November 2018, Chinese scientist He Jiankui announced the birth of the world’s first genetically modified babies, using CRISPR. The revelation that human embryos had been subjected to genetic modification sparked a firestorm of debate and discussion about the ethical implications of gene editing.
What is CRISPR?
CRISPR is a gene-editing system that enables researchers to make precise changes to the genetic code. It works by using an enzyme called Cas9, which is found naturally in bacteria, to recognize a particular gene sequence and then to modify or replace that sequence. It is considered to be a revolutionary technology as it allows scientists to make alterations to the genes of plants, animals, and even humans with relative ease.
How is CRISPR Used?
CRISPR is being used in a variety of ways, ranging from medical advances to agricultural methods. For instance, CRISPR is being applied to create new treatments for diseases like cancer and HIV. It is also being explored as a way to eliminate inherited disorders and genetic mutations that can cause birth defects. Additionally, the gene-editing technology is being used to develop crops that are more resistant to disease, drought, and pests.
The Ethics of CRISPR Babies
When He Jiankui announced the birth of the first CRISPR babies, it generated significant ethical concern. While some argue that gene editing could be used for the greater good, allowing for the elimination of life-threatening diseases, there were widespread fears about the potential misuse of the technology. By altering the genetic code of human embryos, some worried about the prospect of “designer babies” who are engineered to resemble what society deems as desirable and “perfect.”
Risks of Unforeseen Consequences
One of the biggest criticisms of CRISPR is that its effects on the human gene pool are unpredictable. It is difficult to predict the potential long-term consequences of gene-editing technology, so there are fears that the use of CRISPR could lead to unforeseen and potentially dangerous outcomes.
Furthermore, there is a risk of what is known as a “germline mosaic,” which is when some cells in an embryo are edited, while others are not. This could result in a patchwork of genetic changes and could create a number of health issues, both physical and mental, in individuals who were created in this manner.
Regulations and Recommendations
In the wake of the revelation of He Jiankui’s experiment, there has been an increased focus on the need for regulation and best practices. The World Health Organization (WHO) released recommendations to ensure the ethical use of gene-editing technology. These recommendations include:
• Research must have an ethical purpose and must respect subjects’ rights and welfare.
• Researchers must adhere to stringent international standards and ethical guidance.
• Institutions must provide rigorous oversight to ensure safety, efficacy, and proper management.
• Research on humans must receive approval from an independent ethics review committee.
• New products and services should be introduced responsibly and with a focus on safety and transparency.
The rise of CRISPR babies has generated significant debate about the ethics of gene-editing technology. While CRISPR could lead to tremendous advances for science and medicine, there are also risks associated with its use, such as unexpected consequences and the potential for its misuse. In order to ensure the responsible use of gene-editing technology, it is important for researchers, institutions, and governments to adhere to stringent regulations and to follow best practices.