We have always been fascinated with the possibility that science could some day allow us to edit or create the DNA that makes us precisely who we are. It has historically always been the thought that you are the way you are, and there is no changing that. If you are born with brown eyes, you ought not hope to someday have blue eyes or if you are 8 feet tall you shouldn’t dream of being 5 foot 10 inches – or vice versa; although we have certainly tried to change these hereditary, genetic factors – you can buy colored contacts, wear thick soled shoes to look taller or wear vertical strips to add to that effect. Scientifically, we have been working on it for quite some time. The cloning of Dolly was a major breakthrough that raised a lot of ethical queries, and researchers clone genes of interest into cells and animals in the lab routinely. Now, we hold the potential to successfully edit our genetic code and modify what is found there to our liking and particularly to use as a therapeutic for disease, but with great achievement comes great responsibility – let’s talk ethics.
The November issue of Nature Biotechnology published a perspective article on just this, titled “Ethical principles for the use of human cellular biotechnologies”. Breakthrough technologies in biomedical engineering hold great potential for new therapeutics in a wide range of disease states. Let’s say a particular disease is caused by a mutated gene, lack of an essential protein, or conversely the over abundance of a protein with negative side effects; well what if we could just edit the human genome to fix these mutations, re-express the lost protein, or abrogate the expression of the overly abundant one? CRISPR, or clustered regularly-interspaced short palindromic repeat, has reignited the field of gene edting, along with recent success with RNA interference mediated alterations of expression, and these are just two technologies to name a few. With such advances, some feel that we should plough ahead while others believe we should tread lightly and think more about what it is, exactly, that these technologies are affording us and how it should be managed. The article in Nature Biotechnology highlights a global conference that was held in Atlanta, Georgia in May of 2015 where “over 140 delegates gathered for a three day conference entitled ‘Biotechnology and the Ethical Imagination: A Global Summit’ (BEINGS). The purpose of the summit was to see whether an ideologically and culturally diverse group of stakeholders from a variety of fields and approaches could generate consensus on a set of principles to guide basic and translational science.” This is no easy task to accomplish.
In summary, this summit resulted in a set of ten principles which were set forward as a foundation for the open discussion and as a word of caution for the field of rapidly growing biomedical technologies. They are as follows, directly from the perspective:
Each of these principles themselves could have entire articles, or books, written on their importance and implications, but for now this facilitates thought provocation and provides insight. To read the complete article, see Paul Root Wolpe, Karen S Rommelfanger & the Drafting and Reviewing Delegates of the BEINGS Working Groups, Ethical prinicples for the use of human cellular biotechnologies (2017) Nature Biotechnology 35:11(1050-1058).
Sources: Nature Biotechnology, Wikipedia, XPlore Health, Youtube, Pixabay.