Sunday, March 29, 2015

#88 / Gene-Edited Babies

Dr. Jennifer A. Doudna, pictured below, is the inventor of a new genome-editing technique. In an article that appeared in the March 20, 2015 edition of The New York Times, and headlined "Scientists Seek Ban on Method of Making Gene-Edited Babies," Dr. Doudna is advising against using the technique anytime soon. She is not alone in worrying about the use of these germline modifications

Dr. Doudna's invention is the "next step" after the gene modification techniques I have already mentioned, earlier this year, and while the article does describe the new technique as an "invention," I would actually think it might better be called a "discovery." By calling her technique an "invention," I suppose, Dr. Doudna may well be attempting to secure an opportunity to patent it. 

In essence, Dr. Doudna's technique allows human beings to modify the human germline and by doing so to "take control of our genetic destiny." According to the article, the new technique is "so effective and easy to use that some physicians may push ahead before its safety can be assessed." 

"Safety," of course, is an issue. The article quotes scientists, including Dr. Doudna, who believe that safety concerns should be addressed by taking a "precautionary" approach. Once the human germline is modified in any specific individual, the changed genetic character of that individual can be transmitted to future generations. The single individual whose germline is modified, in other words, is not the only party affected. In fact, the entire future of the human race is affected.

In that situation, whether or not the technique should be used is definitely a "safety" issue. The nature of who we are, as human beings, is even more at issue.

The Two Worlds "hypothesis" that I am exploring in this series of blog postings suggests that human beings create a "human world," which is the world we most immediately inhabit, and that this "human world" is constructed within a preexisting Natural World that human beings did not create. We ourselves, as biological entities, are part of that Natural World, and we are thus subject to its requirements. The invention of Dr. Doudna would allow us fundamentally to alter that situation, and thus to "create" humans the way we might create a new type of architecture or a new social rule.

There are many who have no qualms at this prospect. The idea that human beings should themselves be in charge of creating the human race seems reasonable to them. 

I don't agree. 

The Natural World we inhabit, however it came into existence, is wondrous, and marvelous, and complex. This Natural World, a world that preexists our own creations, is a world we are privileged to inhabit. 

Our human role, within that World of Nature, is not to believe that we can do it better.

At least, that's what I think.

Image Credits: 
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  1. No, this technique has absolutely nothing to do with your contemptibly ignorant and profoundly immoral post on three-parent in vitro fertilization. That was about allowing mothers with mitochondrial disease to have healthy children of their own.

    This is about using the CRISPR-Cas9 system for gene editing. CRISPR is part of the prokaryotic immune system which is adapted to recognize and cut exogenous (foreign) genetic elements [1]. The Cas9 protein has the unique ability to bind to essentially any complement sequence in any genome [2].

    Doudna was the first to describe the CRISPR system [9]. The same paper "highlights the potential to exploit the system for RNA-programmable genome editing." In this sense, she did indeed INVENT a way to use the molecular tools provided by nature (Cas9) to do something new (genome editing); no different in from any other invention. She won the 2015 Breakthrough Prize for "harnessing an ancient mechanism of bacterial immunity into a powerful and general technology for editing genomes" [3]. Feng Zhang has already filed a patent on a technique for CRISPR-Cas9 gene editing including its use on human cells [4].

    This news story is about a paper [5, 6] published by researchers including IGI Executive Director Jennifer Doudna [7]. Nowhere in the paper is the "precautionary approach" (a political tool that puts the burden of proof on those taking an action) mentioned. The paper makes these four reasonable recommendations [8]: 1) Strongly discourage clinical application of this technology at this time. 2) Create forums for education and discussion. 3) Encourage open research to evaluate the utility of CRISPR-Cas9 technology for both human and nonhuman model systems. 4) Hold an international meeting to consider these issues and possibly make policy recommendation.

    Don't mistake ordinary, pragmatic caution for the political tool known as the "precautionary approach".


  2. Gene editing can be accomplished by many other techniques (e.g. zinc finger mentioned in the article), so CRISPER-Cas9 does not "fundamentally to alter that situation" in the least.


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