Imagine being able to modify human cells in such a way that you get the desired product of a human. Say, a parent walks into a gene clinic and says that he wants a child with blue eyes, this much level of intelligence and some skin colour, well that is definitely a parent demanding a customised baby. But to many like us who do not follow the scientific community closely, this might come to sound like an interesting plot for a sci-fi movie. But “customising a human” is a reality today. Traits like skin colour, eye colour, height etc., are easy to customise but customisation of intelligence, emotional level etc., are complex as it depends on both “nature and nurture”.A lot of work in the field of genetics has been carried out in the last 65 years. One of the breakthroughs in this field is the process of “genome mapping”. Genome mapping is the method used to identify genes in the body and systematically map them taking into account the distances between the genes.
Post the breakthrough of genome mapping, its cost over the next 15 years reduced drastically by the factor of 10. Now with less cost, it is possible to carry out gene mapping and identify those genes that can cause a problem or might be defective. Once identification of the gene is done, it might be possible to treat the same gene for the defect by manipulating it, or by replacing it with a new gene with the desired quality. CRISPR (Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats) helps treat the gene with defect. It is a simple tool for editing genomes. It has been identified that a few bacteria help to cut the viruses and keep the virus from replicating, thus preventing the diseases and infections caused by the virus. Thus, CRISPR is used to infuse such bacteria in the genes. In layman terms, it is the process of manipulation of the genes.
The CRISPR technology was invented by Jennifer Doudna. It had widely been experimented on plants and small animals. It has become easy to tweak the DNA of bacteria at home with the help of the CRISPR kit. The use of this technology on humans has not been initiated for several reasons-scientific, ethical and security.With the use of gene editing and CRISPR, Iceland is nearly on the verge of eradicating the Down syndrome. While many may say that this is a good use of technology, the question is raised when one sees from the point of view of those with the syndrome. Frank Stephens, a man with Down syndrome and the voice of everyone with Down syndrome in Iceland said, “Is there really no place for us in the world?” when gene modification was used to eradicate it completely. No new births show the signs of the syndrome.
Also, in a few countries, the technique is used to curb dwarfism. The question that is raised here is whether dwarfism is a disease? The ethical consideration is the subjective understanding of what the disease is and what must be eradicated. AIDS has a common consensus to be a disease and must be fought against, but what about deafness? Situations like dwarfism, deafness, Down syndrome, etc., show a fuzzy line between being a disease or a condition. The deaf might say that it is not a disease and it is their uniqueness. For a dwarf woman, such a technology might come across as demeaning as for her if a woman without dwarfism is trying to eliminate dwarfism during pregnancy proves that the likes of her will not be accepted in the community.Such a mentality is a sign of discrimination and goes against the notion of accepting individual differences.
The bigger question is “who are we (humans) to decide what one should be born with or be like”, thus, are we trying to take the God’s title of being creator?There is a need to differentiate between two things, treatment and enhancement. The question is whether there lies an oral difference between the two. In an article in Geneng news, Patrick Lin states that “Drawing a Principled Line between the two is complicated, if it even exists”. Treatment would be helping to cure a disease, whereas enhancement can be thought of as a process similar to plastic surgery which in this instance is used by people to make changes to their appearance. While treatment is considered essential, there is a debate regarding enhancement. There are two types of cells that humans possess, the semantic cells whose DNA does not get passed down to the offspring and the germ-line, which can be passed down through the sperm and egg.
Is there a scientific harm involved in the mutation of genes? Well, we have seen the rise of IVF in the last decade, with the only problem being egg harvest. In mice, it has been possible to produce eggs using their skin cells and if that is possible on humans, then it would change the way reproduction has been taking place and the future will be blooming with fertility clinics. Germline edits has the potential to affect human population and evolution. The scientific question here is whether it is hazardous. Keeping ethical considerations aside and the notion of security, think about this scenario in which by gene manipulation, the probability of having Alzheimer is reduced, would not that enhancement be desirable? Linking to the ethical consideration, the vital aspect is to limit its use. We do not want a factory that manufactures humans with given traits, do we?
The use of CRISPR on humans is banned in several nations. In shocking news in November 2018, He Jiankui, a Chinese scientist announced the birth of twin baby girls and the birth of third one on the way through the use of CRISPR technology. There lies several repercussions of this, not just criminal but also scientific and ethical. Who will parent the children? What will be the effect of mutation on children? Will there be any harsh consequences? Well, to conclude it would be safe to say that let science progress, but let us limit the progress, or else the application might backlash and can be used to cause harm.
Picture Courtesy- MIT Technology Review