Woodruff: Gene Modifying in humans crosses line

Beth Woodruff

Chinese scientists have experimented with non-viable embryos in recent months, using gene editing to potentially eradicate harmful traits in unborn humans. However, the potential risks and ethical concerns with this new technology might be too much to justify its use.

China has used a technology known as CRISPR to essentially “cut, copy and paste” genes wherever it pleases, which would essentially result in a customized human being. CRISPR is a system that can target specific segments of DNA. The experiment was done on human embryos for the first time in an attempt to eliminate the possibility of an infant being born with a deadly blood disorder. 

Out of the 86 embryos the team started the experimentation with, only 71 survived through the entirety of the study, according to NOVA. Out of those 71 remaining embryos, only 28 had been modified successfully. 

While many people may see this budding technology as the first step to construct a future lifeline to the human race, it raises two primary problems. The first problem is the future impact of such a technology, and the second is where to draw the line between ethical and unethical. 

There has been little experimentation conducted using CRISPR technology, as the first human embryo testing was just completed in April 2015. This means that there is little to no possibility of estimating the potential effects of gene editing in the future because the technology hasn’t been in action for a full year yet. 

Nature.com states that this experimental science has been successfully used on animals such as goats to increase their muscle mass and allot for more edible meat on the animal. However, these experiments on animals are recent, dating back to September 2015. While the meager age of less than a year may cause people to be skeptical of the technology, the argument could be made that it is a promising development, and we will see that in the coming year. But there is also a viable argument that it is still very new, meaning the potential for kinks in the system is very real.

As a whole, Americans tend to be weary of genetically modified (GM) foods, according to a Pew research study. Pew stated that 57 percent of adults in America find GM foods to be “generally unsafe” to eat, while 67 percent feel scientists “do not have a clear understanding” of the side effects of GM foods.

So why would citizens be weary of genetically modified foods, but not bat an eye at genetically modified children? If the majority of people are hesitant to put GM foods into their bodies, because of their adverse side effects, it is hypocritical for them to advocate for an entirely GM-based human.

Further concern arises with where the line on gene modification should be drawn. When the ability to modify human embryos becomes simple and routine, what will ensure its uses are medicinal, and won’t result in “designer babies?” 

Gene modifications could lead to children’s looks and personality being altered before they are even born. This could lead to a larger gap between the rich and poor, making the affluent rise to a higher level of elite as they could afford contrived “perfection.” 

While the lure of gene modification is enticing to many scientists, not all of them see it as leading to a positive change in humanity. NBC quoted Francis Collins, the National Institutes of Health director, stating that gene modification “has been viewed almost universally as a line that should not be crossed.” 

Humans are a species constantly striving toward perfection, yearning to gain more knowledge and power. Unfortunately, some science should be left alone and unexplored because of the possible side effects it may produce. Gene editing is one of the sciences; it has the potential to restore or destroy a world, with which is a risk not worth meddling.