Biotechnology

Another Pointless Human Gene-Editing Moratorium

Now watch the bioluddites swarm out of the policy woodwork.

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Gene Editing
Stanford

Biotechnology was unfortunately born precautionary. Back in the Medieval period (a.k.a. the 1970s) a bunch of biologists got together to call for a moratorium on using the then-new gene-splicing techniques (recombinant DNA) to transfer genes from one organism to another. A self-selected group met in 1975 at Asilomar where they recommended establishing a system of recombinant DNA research regulation under the National Institutes of Health. Naturally, the brouhaha attracted the attention of luddite activists and the rest is history.

In 1984, just ten year after the gene-splicing moratorium, Burke Zimmerman noted in his book Biofuture:

In looking back, it would be hard to insist that a law was necessary, or, perhaps, that guidelines were necessary.

Well, yes. Nevetheless, dire predictions abounded. For example, the New York Times magazine published an overwrought article speculating that gene-splicing could result epidemics of infectious cancer. I know. I know. Subsequently, gene-splicing has produced hundreds of billions of genetically modified organisms without any significant downsides, and lots of upsides including new medicines and crops. High school biology students now do gene-splicing experiments.

Similarly, lots of allegedly smart folks called for a ban on using in vitro fertilization techniques to produce test-tube babies in the 1970s (the era was rife not only with bad fashion, but also really bad policies). Some 4 million children have since been born using those techniques and the rate of birth defects is about the same as for conventional reproduction. In 2001, the Food and Drug Administration banned the transfer of cytoplasm between human eggs as way to treat mitochondrial diseases.

In 2012, two brilliant biologists devised the new and extremely precise CRISPR gene-editing technique. Based on a system used by bacteria to defend themselves against viruses, CRISPR enables super-precise editing of a genome down to replacing a single defective DNA base pair.

Now come some scientists and bioethicists with an article in Science arguing for a moratorium on the clinical use of CRISPR (damned paywall!) to treat human genetic defects, especially those that change the germline, i.e., sperm and eggs. Prudence is a good idea; it is early days yet for the technology. However, the Asilomar precedent of convening a confab of self-selected would-be research regulators is not good.

Again, it is too early to use the technology in the clinic, but research using monkey embryos has shown great promise for using the technique to correct genetic defects. Entangling the technology with bioethicists—whose first response is always to slow down technological progress—is a mistake that will much more likely delay getting benefits to patients than protect them from possible downsides.

One signatory to the moratorium, Harvard biologist George Church already seems to realize this:

"Those uncertainties, together with existing regulations, are sufficient to prevent responsible scientists from attempting any genetically altered babies, says George Church, a molecular geneticist at Harvard Medical School in Boston. Although he signed the Science commentary, he says the discussion "strikes me as a bit exaggerated." He maintains that a de facto moratorium is in place for all technologies until they're proven safe. "The challenge is to show that the benefits are greater than the risks."

I predict that that won't be much of a challenge.

In the wake of this wrongheaded Science article it won't take long for bioluddite activists swarm out of the woodwork to try stop this technology

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  1. “Bioluddites” would be an excellent name for a punk album.

    1. I’ve made $64,000 so far this year working online and I’m a full time student. I’m using an online business opportunity I heard about and I’ve made such great money. It’s really user friendly and I’m just so happy that I found out about it. Heres what I’ve been doing
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  2. OT: Fire Extinguisher Plant Becomes Scene Of Extra-Alarm Blaze
    http://chicago.cbslocal.com/20…..warehouse/
    If only…

  3. Some 4 million children have since been born using those techniques and the rate of birth defects is about the same as for conventional reproduction.

    Goddamn tubies, taking over robot fighting from us normals.

    1. Wake me up when I can be a Dunedain.

      1. Hey buddy, you dropped this palantir!

  4. Again, it is too early to use the technology in the clinic, but research using monkey embryos has shown great promise for using the technique to correct genetic defects. Entangling the technology with bioethicists – whose first response is always to slow down technological progress – is a mistake that will much more likely delay getting benefits to patients than protect them from possible downsides.

    When all you do is wank about hypothetical perils you end up viewing actual people as hypotheticals.

    Thus bioethicists don’t care about actual human beings that are actually suffering and stand to benefit from new technology. They are disgusting people who contribute nothing to the well-being of the human race.

    1. Misanthropy on the whole really peeves me. It’s pervasive, obnoxiously smug, self-gratifying pablum for intellectual wannabes to disguise their own flawed personalities as a worldview. And when their sense of priestly condescension over the dumb, brutish masses calves half-baked policy prescriptions in its wake, the rest of us suffer.

  5. Procedural genetiscapes is what I’m about, nigga.

    1. Since it’s you I read that first as:

      Procedural genitalscapes….

      1. Franchise it! That’s a pubic hair opportunity if there ever was one.

  6. I used to subscribe to Science, but I resented having to pay for their politically correct hand wringing when all I anted was the science. It wasn’t just the blatantly political articles, but that they seemed to be paid for from my subscription’s unavoidable support for the AAAS itself.

    1. The day scarecrows learn to repair themselves will not be a happy one, I presume.

      1. I’m a programmer. I stuff computer full of smarts.

  7. Somewhat OT, but relevant: Why is insulin Expensive?

    Anyone want to bet the article mentions the giant bureaucracy and its numerous hoops and restrictions that makes it more expensive and riskier to start a plant to produce this? Nah, it has to be corporations’ faults. You cannot expect economic literacy out of statists, and you cannot expect them to understand the damage they do to innocent lives because they just do not see it. CRISPR tech could prevent all sorts of misery, but it will be delayed not because it is harmful, but because it is uncontrolled.

    1. Corporate profits!

  8. From your post, we appear to be between stage 5:
    A lab develops a process that opens the possibility.
    and stage 6:
    Congress holds hearings with NIMBYs regurgitating scare stories
    for this particular scientific advance.

    1. Not exactly that simple. What the article doesn’t mention is that one of the “brilliant researchers” who codeveloped the process is also one of the “bioluddites” calling for a moratorium on using it.

  9. Perhaps the bioluddites will be reassured by the knowledge that genes aren’t everything. All sorts of terrible things can still go wrong developmentally via a host of causes in utero.
    So they can content themselves with the knowledge that even WITH gene editing, there will still be plenty of babies born with terrible diseases and birth defects.

    1. More the converse. If gene editing becomes general practice, EVERY birth defect and genetic disease – even ones that have been known for millenia – will become the fault of gene editing.

  10. GATTACA.
    Bring it on.

  11. I like nectarines and sweet corn, that’s for sure, but I sure despise all or nothing slams like labeling people who question authority and the crap thrown at us every waking day of our lives as meddlesome bioluddites. If the message is not clear, don’t blame us. The problem I have with tinkering with human genome is the same problem I have with companies like Microsoft and pesky third reich types who might find recreating the Neanderthal as a fighting machine an ‘ethical’ answer to ground war or some other half-baked tinker just to see what would happen. TRUST. Programmers, designers, inventors are never satisfied with a product, they keep tinkering and tinkering until the thing becomes unusable and impractical but the user (luddite ignoramus) always gets the blame for being too stupid, lazy or unmotivated to grasp the enormity of the efforts of these programmers, designers and inventors who are just trying to improve things for us ungrateful unscientific peons.

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