Genome Editing: A Cutting-Edge Technique or an Ethical Nightmare?

Behnoush Hassanzadeh
21 March 2018

Above: Image © a_crotty,iStockPhoto.com

What if I told you scientists have the ability to change certain traits in an unborn child, such as the colour of their eyes? Or eliminate the chances of them developing a genetic disease before they are born? Would you believe me?

Genome editing (also called gene editing), the modification of genes, is a field of genetics that’s growing quickly. For example, in a gene editing technique called CRISPR, scientists can find a DNA sequence that causes an undesirable trait, and either fix it or replace it with a different one.

While these techniques are still in the research phases, they can be used to edit the genomes of various living organisms, with potentially big benefits. For example, they could edit plant genes so that the plants are more nutritious for the humans that eat them. They could edit animal genes so that the animals are better able to resist diseases. And they could edit human genes so that humans no longer pass hereditary diseases on to their children.

But gene editing remains an extremely controversial topic. That’s because it raises some ethical concerns.

Gene editing means scientists have the potential to create permanent changes in embryos. As we already mentioned, they could get rid of diseases that run in the family. But they could also change hair colour, eye colour, or height. They could create a child based on the wishes of the parents-to-be. And this is a major concern for many people involved in the field.

Some other concerns that people have about gene editing are:

  • There is a high chance of errors occurring during the genome editing process. Errors can have devastating consequences. For example, a researcher can accidentally delete a gene, which can lead to developmental defects in the fetus.
  • Once people have access to the technology, it might be hard to control what it’s used for. This could create a slippery slope. Parents-to-be might use the technology in ways that are considered sexist or racist. For example, if parents can choose their baby’s sex, is this a way of allowing sexism? How about if parents can choose physical traits that are more common in races they find more attractive - is this a form of racism?
  • This technology could be extremely costly. This means that only some people will be able to afford it.

However, there are arguments on the other side of these concerns, too.

To address the safety issue and the chances of error, scientists state that nothing in the world of experimental science is 100% safe. The question is not “Is it safe?” Instead, it’s “Is it safe enough to be worth pursuing?” Remember, gene editing could help scientists diagnose and eliminate diseases. Scientists involved in the field and the government funding the research must agree on whether benefits like these are good enough reasons to justify some of the safety risks.

However, addressing the slippery slope issue seems to be more challenging. There is no clear-cut explanation of what is considered a correction of a deficiency, and what is potentially an unnecessary and “unethical” change. So I encourage you, as future scientists, to think about genome editing in terms of ethical boundaries and potential consequences. Do you think the benefits outweigh the costs?

Did you know? As of today, Canadian law does not allow scientists to make changes to an unborn child’s genome that can be passed down to that child’s children. 

Let’s talk about it!

  • How might gene editing techniques benefit you if you were a crop farmer? A livestock farmer? Can you think of any challenges they might bring?
  • If you could edit the genes of your future children, would you? What traits might you edit?
  • Should government-funded health care plans cover the cost of genome editing? Why or why not?
  • Do you think the potential benefits of genome editing outweigh the dangers of inappropriate use of this method?

Learn More!

Embryo Gene-Editing Experiment Reignites Ethical Debate (2017)
D.F. Maron, Scientific American

Genome Editing: Ethical Concerns (2017)
National Health Genome Research Institute

Take stock of research ethics in human genome editing (2017)
Nature

Towards a CRISPR view of early human development: applications, limitations and ethical

Concerns of genome editing in human embryos (2017)
A.P. Reyes & F. Lanner, Development 144

CRISPR - Cas9 System: Opportunities and Concerns (2016)
S.K. Vasiliou et al., Clinical Chemistry 62

Behnoush Hassanzadeh

I am a third year Biomedical Science student at York University. As a third year student, the main focus of my studies is understanding the molecular aspects of biological and medical research and the impact of new methodologies on the future of the field of biology. Additionally, I am very interested in molecular genetics and its potential positive effects on the future of medicine.  

Je poursuis un baccalauréat en sciences biomédicales à l’Université York. Je suis maintenant en troisième année et mes études portent principalement sur l’aspect moléculaire de la recherche biomédicale et sur les techniques émergentes en biologie. La génétique moléculaire m’intéresse aussi, notamment les façons dont elle pourrait contribuer au domaine de la médecine. 






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