Yesterday, Japanese researchers announced that their marmosets, genetically modified to glow green under ultraviolet light, had had babies that glowed too. This work shows that primates can be given new traits that can be passed on to future generations. This proof-of-concept experiment is a step toward modifying primates so that they can pass along human genes that produce disease which might be valuable for finding cures. Hooray! Well, actually not for everyone.
Setting aside the predictable objections of the animal rights folks, it turns out that some bioethicists are wringing their hands over this research advance, too. Why? According to the Washington Post,
But because the work marks the first time members of a species so closely related to humans have had their genetic makeup permanently altered, the research set off alarms that it marked a troubling step toward applying such techniques to people, which would violate a long-standing taboo.
"It would be easy enough for someone to make the leap to trying this on humans," said Lori B. Andrews, who studies reproductive technologies at the Illinois Institute of Technology's Chicago-Kent College of Law. "If you make this kind of change, it's passed on to all future generations. Many people think it's hubris to have people remaking people in this way." …
"This is proof of concept in a closely related species," Andrews said.
"Some in the future might want to put a gene into humans to give them the running speed of a cheetah, for example, or maybe create the potential for night vision." Andrews noted that reproductive technologies are largely unregulated in the United States.
"This is just another reason why we need to go behind the doors of the [fertility] clinics and create an oversight mechanism that works," Andrews said.
Even the hoary argument from repugance makes its appearance:
"It's hard to put your finger on what is it about this research that is likely to stimulate ethical debate besides the sort of gut feeling that this is not the right thing to do," said Mark A. Rothstein, a bioethicist at the University of Louisville. "But I think we'd better contemplate where this research is going and develop policies to deal with it before it slaps us in the face."
That's a typical move of all too many bioethicists — stop/slow research until we bless/condemn it with our moral imprimatur.
The Post article ends with this observation from Emory University geneticist Anthony Chan:
"We should never do it in humans," Chan said. "We don't want to change our evolutionary path. That would have a profound impact on the next generation."