As published in the Aug. 2, 2017, edition of Nature Magazine, scientists at the Oregon Health & Science University successfully “edited” the gene sequence of a human embryo. I placed quotation remarks around the word “edited” because it is a euphemism for what really went on. The scientists snipped a piece of DNA out of the gene strand belonging to one fertilized egg (human) and replaced it with the corresponding piece of DNA extracted out of another egg from a totally unrelated source.
While this new piece of DNA is referred to in the article as wild DNA, the donor egg was destroyed in the process.
The significance of this particular experiment is that it was carried out successfully. The pitfalls that have prevented this type of genetic manipulation in humans in the past have been overcome, essentially paving the way for eventual commercialization.
In other words, we do indeed stand on the threshold of GMO embryos, GMO babies, and ultimately, GMO people.
This could be one of the most monumental yet dangerous events of 2017, much more so than nine months of psychobabble about Mr. Trump. While the stated outcome of this series of experiments is the repair (also a euphemism) of inherited DNA that would likely result in birth defects, it does result in a new living being altered and distinct from the one which existed prior to the procedure.
This in the same sense that a GMO soybean seed is not the same seed as it was before modification. The new human being, if allowed to progress to maturity, would in every sense of the word be genetically modified, and a carrier of genetically modified material.
Hopefully, this event raises many ethical questions in the mind of the reader, such as: How far do we go in “correcting” or “improving” people by genetically modifying them? What are the controls on the process to keep unintended consequences from spreading (much like the controls on GMO corn and soybean fields to keep them from fertilizing non-GMO crops)? Will there be a necessity to identify and track GMO people under these controls? An who ultimately decides the policy?
Currently, policy is being determined by the scientific community doing the work. Oregon Health & Science University has an ethics board for this project: the Stem Cell Research Oversight Committee which operates under National Academy of Science guidelines. The authors of the study cite a number of other panels, committees and bodies providing input to methods in which this research is being conducted.
While such oversight is a good thing, it seems to me that it is over-weighted toward the scientific community doing the work, and thus benefiting from its progress to commercialization. As expected, the concerns of this community have more to do with the process of this work (informed consent of participants, compensation, etc.) than the impacts of potential outcomes. A widespread, wide ranging discussion of these issues is imperative.
Yet I will venture that this guest opinion piece is that first that the vast majority of its readers have heard of this occurrence. The Aug. 2 publication was briefly covered in the NY Times, Washington Post and CNN, mostly in the form of cheerleading, with scant mention of the need for a vigorous ethical debate at the policy level.
I learned of it from a publication of a Christian University which stated that, “a bright ethical line has been crossed.” Indeed.
The worst nightmares of a thousand science fiction tales could be coming to our doorstep very soon. Are we ready?
Donnie Hall is State Committeeman for the Clallam County Republican Party. See clallamrepublicans.org.