How to curate the human fate

It’s hard to know whether calls for “urgent debates” actually work - especially as people are already doing it.

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It’s hard to know whether calls for “urgent debates” actually work. Nonetheless, here’s another: the Wellcome Trust, the Medical Research Council, the Association of Medical Research Charities, the Academy of Medical Sciences and the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council all want us to start discussing whether it might be OK to edit the human genome.

What is there to talk about? People are already doing it. The human genome is not a single recipe – there are about seven billion edits in existence at the moment. These are actively chosen edits, too: every time a couple conceive a child, the adults involved have made deliberate choices that will create what they think is a pretty good set of genes. They weigh up looks, financial security and intelligence and often discuss the pros and cons of a potential mate with family and friends before deciding that this is probably the best option available for creating a new genome. The vast majority of babies are precisely the “designer babies” that genetic doom-mongers are so afraid of.

It is astonishingly difficult to come up with a plausible reason why we should not use genetic technologies to edit the human genome. It might prove to be a useful therapy – against cancer, for instance – and the technology has the potential vastly to reduce the degree of suffering that future generations of human beings will have to endure.

The hard truth is that our edits sometimes create slightly faulty DNA. Your partner might have a genetically induced tendency to have dangerously high cholesterol levels, for instance, or be the unwitting carrier of a gene that creates a life-threatening blood disorder. In this tragic scenario, in which the resulting genome contains alterations that introduce the possibility of disease into the child’s future, wouldn’t it be nice to be able to make a last-minute edit that improved the chances of good health? When you have already put so much effort into choosing good DNA, why not go the last mile and get the unintended errors put right?

Yes, some maverick might implant a poorly edited embryo in an unsuspecting woman. But there will always be medical mavericks who exploit desperation to carry out unethical procedures. Desperate people in the developing world are selling their kidneys to unscrupulous doctors but we do not wish that the technology and techniques of organ transplantation had been stopped in their tracks. We cannot let the fear of abuse stop us exploring the kinds of advances that can save lives and reduce the impact of genetically borne disease.

Even properly supervised, ethically pursued research will go wrong and could result in tragedy for a handful of families. It’s the price of progress. We suffered similar disappointments and setbacks with heart transplants, IVF and gene therapy, to name but three life-enhancing medical innovations. It’s impossible to achieve such remarkable breakthroughs without some casualties. And, yes, future generations will have modifications to their genome that they didn’t ask for. Just like everyone else always has had.

Let’s be clear: at the moment, we are talking only about seeing what we can learn to do with DNA in isolated cells and possibly unimplanted embryos that are less than two weeks old. It is, in essence, a matter of small bags of chemicals, not the seeds of our destruction. Should we learn to edit (maybe “curate” would be more acceptable) the human genome? Let’s talk about it – but of course we should. 

Michael Brooks holds a PhD in quantum physics. His most recent book is At the Edge of Uncertainty: 11 Discoveries Taking Science by Surprise.

This article appears in the 24 September 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Revenge of the Left