Dear Commons Community,
An advisory group formed by the National Academy of Sciences and the National Academy of Medicine yesterday lent its support to a once-unthinkable proposition: the modification of human embryos to create genetic traits that can be passed down to future generations. As reported by the New York Times:
“…human gene editing has long been seen as an ethical minefield. Researchers fear that the techniques used to prevent genetic diseases might also be used to enhance intelligence, for example, or to create people physically suited to particular tasks, like serving as soldiers.
The advisory group endorsed only alterations designed to prevent babies from acquiring genes known to cause “serious diseases and disability,” and only when there is no “reasonable alternative.” The report provides an explicit rationale for genetic research that the federal government has avoided supporting until now, although the work is being pursued in countries like Sweden and China.
So-called germ line engineering might allow people to have biological children without fear that they have passed on the genes for diseases like Huntington’s, Tay-Sachs and beta thalassemia, and without discarding embryos carrying the disease-causing mutations, as is often done now. Though such cases are likely to be rare, the report says they should be taken seriously.
The new report heralds a day scientists have long warned is coming. After decades of science-fiction movies, cocktail party chatter and college seminars in which people have idly debated the ethics of humanity intervening in its own evolution, advancing technology dictates that the public now make some hard choices.
“It is essential for public discussions to precede any decisions about whether or how to pursue clinical trials of such applications,” said R. Alta Charo, a bioethicist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and a leader of the panel that wrote the report. “And we need to have them now.”
Just over a year ago, an international group of scientists said it would be “irresponsible to proceed” with making heritable changes to the human genome until risks could be better assessed and there was “broad societal consensus about the appropriateness” of any proposed change.
No one is pretending that such a consensus now exists. But in the year that the committee was deliberating, Ms. Charo said, the techniques required to perform this sort of gene editing have passed crucial milestones.
The advent of a powerful gene-editing tool called Crispr-Cas9 allows researchers to snip, insert and delete genetic material with increasing precision. It has led to plans for experimental treatments of adult patients with cancer, blindness and other conditions as early as this year…
…..“This opens the door to advertisements from fertility clinics of giving your child the best start in life with a gene-editing packet,” said Marcy Darnovsky, the executive director of the Center for Genetics and Society, a public interest group in Berkeley, Calif. “And whether these are real advantages or perceived advantages, they would accrue disproportionately to people who are already advantaged.”
The new guidelines, Ms. Darnovsky noted, also set the United States apart from many European countries that have signed a treaty to refrain from human germ line editing.”
This article rightly points out that genetic engineering is a complicated, ethical issue. This first small step taken by the cited science panel is significant not for what will happen in the near future but what might happen in the intermediate to distant future.