In April 2015, China shocked the world by with the announcement that they have engineered human embryos. Researchers from the Sun Yat-sen University in Guangzhou confirmed that they had modified the gene responsible for thalassaemia, a fatal blood disorder.
Led by Junjiu Huang, the research team fended off fears of eugenics by stating that the embryos used were “non-viable.” Meaning, they couldn’t have developed into humans. The achievement was the first in the world.
Critics have warned that China is becoming the “Wild West” of genetic research. They called what’s being done as a first step towards the creation of “designer children” and have called for a ban on the practice around the world.
The research of the team from the Sun Yat-sen University was reported in the journal Protein and Cell. Science journals Nature and Science didn’t want to publish the study on grounds of ethics.
Human Genetics Alert Director Dr David King said that the news underlines the importance of an immediate global ban on the development of GM designer babies. He adds, “It is critical that we avoid a eugenic future in which the rich can buy themselves a baby with built-in genetic advantages. It is entirely unnecessary since there are many ethical ways to avoid thalassaemia. This research is a classic example of scientific careerism – assuring one’s place in the history books even though the research is unnecessary and unethical.”
The Sun Yat-sen University team used a gene-editing technique known as CRISPR/Cas9, discovered by MIT scientists. CRISPR works based on the fact that when bacteria attacks viruses, they hack away at part of their genetic code which results in dismembering the virus. The cut-away gene is then replaced or repaired by another molecule which is introduced at the same time. This technique has been used in adult cells and animal cells, but has never been tried on human embryos.
The team used embryos obtained from fertility clinics that were created for IVF use but had an extra set of chromosomes, a result that followed fertilization by two sperm, and prevents them from resulting in a live birth. The team injected 89 embryos with Cas9 protein. Of that, 71 survived and 54 were genetically tested. From that, 28 were spliced successfully and just a fraction of those had the replacement genetic material.
Dr Philippa Brice, from the health policy think-tank PHG Foundation, says of the news: “This story underlines the urgent necessity for international dialogue over the ethics of germline editing in human embryos, well in advance of any progression towards theoretical clinical application.” She adds, “Recent calls for a moratorium on any such research to allow time for expert and public consideration of what is and is not ethically, socially and indeed legally acceptable with respect to human germline genetic modification should definitely be heeded.”
Human genetic engineering is such a huge debate, with advocates and detractors. Let’s look at the arguments of both sides of the divide:
List of Pros of Human Genetic Engineering
1. It eliminates devastating inherited diseases
Birthing a child who is 100% healthy is a dream of every parent. However, that is not always the case. There’s a huge chance that a child ends up sickly as they grow older and sometimes carried over into adulthood. No parent wants to see their child suffer, and human genetic engineering seems to provide the answer to creating healthy and disease-free kids.
Also, if parents have a known family history of devastating illnesses, they know that that could be passed on to their offspring. In particular, if both parents have health issues to begin with, they are worried that might get passed on to their child. Again, it’s difficult for parents to deal with sickness in a child, especially if it leads to early death. And they want to do everything they can to ensure a healthy baby, and apparently, that’s something the realm of human genetic engineering can provide.
2. It helps extend life
Imagine a world where people are born free from diseases. Surely, inhabitants of that world would be able to live longer and have healthier lives. Some of those who support the idea of modifying the human gene believe that it improves the quality of life.
3. It prevents the spread of disease to the next generation
Let’s just say that a genetically modified human being produces an offspring. Given that genes are inherited, that child will get the traits their parents were made with. If their parents were made to have superior intellectual ability, then the child might inherit the same. In other words, it’s the beginning of a superior race – something that isn’t seen too kindly by everyone given our own history regarding that matter.
List of Cons of Human Genetic Engineering
1. It crosses the ethical line
With genetic engineering, the physical appearance, metabolism of future children can be changed. In fact, even their physical capabilities and mental faculties (including memory and intelligence) can be improved upon. Ethical concerns regarding germline engineering are in the lines of “every fetus has the right to remain genetically unmodified.”
2. It raises safety issues
With cloning animals, it has been shown that there are certain health issues involved. While Dolly the Sheep did live to see more than five years, she also had a couple of health scares that shortened her life. The animals cloned after Dolly didn’t fare well either, even the extinct specie of mountain goat only lived for a couple of minutes.
The same can be said with modifying human genes. Although the Chinese study mentioned here reported successful results, the actual consequences of creating life through modification isn’t yet known. That and the fact that the process of modifying genes is rather complex, the success rate is something of concern.
While other would want to conduct further studies on this, the topic is one that is frowned upon by a majority around the world. Also, there are rules and laws in place that prohibit the practice of genetically modifying humans.
Brandon Miller has a B.A. from the University of Texas at Austin. He is a seasoned writer who has written over one hundred articles, which have been read by over 500,000 people. If you have any comments or concerns about this blog post, then please contact the Green Garage team here.