Science

It's OK to Edit Your Kids' Genes

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This summer, American scientists reported successfully editing out a harmful gene from the genomes of human embryos.

Researchers led by Shoukhrat Mitalipov—a reproductive biology specialist at the Oregon Health and Science University—used CRISPR gene editing to achieve this result. The process enables biologists to precisely cut out and replace bits of the DNA that make up the genes of microbes, plants, and animals. In this case, the researchers mended a deleterious gene variant that causes enlarged hearts and often results in sudden death early in life.

Unlike earlier research in China, the Oregon team reported getting the repaired genes into every cell in 42 out of the 58 embryos they edited. In most of the cases, the process did not create new off-target mutations. Since Congress has banned the National Institutes of Health from funding research using gene-editing technologies in human embryos, this proof-of-concept research was underwritten by private foundations and universities.

The embryos developed for three days and were never intended to be used to create pregnancies.

Other researchers a month later challenged the results, suggesting that they need further validation. But for now Mitalipov stands by his findings.

"We've always said in the past gene editing shouldn't be done, mostly because it couldn't be done safely," Massachusetts Institute of Technology researcher Richard Hynes told The New York Times. "Now it looks like it's going to be done safely soon." If the technique does prove harmless, such gene-edited embryos could be allowed to develop into people who would no longer pass down their familial genetic afflictions to subsequent generations.

Naturally, this advance displeases the anti–"designer baby" claque of bioethicists. "I think it's extraordinarily disturbing," Marcy Darnovsky, who directs the Berkeley-based Center for Genetics and Society, told NPR. "It's a flagrant disregard of calls for a broad societal consensus in decisions about a really momentous technology that could be used [for] good, but in this case is being used in preparation for an extraordinarily risky application."

"If irresponsible scientists are not stopped, the world may soon be presented with a fait accompli of the first [genetically modified, or G.M.] baby," David King said in the same NPR report. King, who heads the U.K.-based group Human Genetics Alert, wants "governments and international organizations to wake up and pass an immediate global ban on creating cloned or G.M. babies, before it is too late."

But in February, a panel of 22 scientists and other experts convened by the National Academy of Sciences issued Human Genome Editing: Science, Ethics, and Governance, which refused to call for a ban on gene-editing embryos. The panel concluded that "heritable germline genome editing trials must be approached with caution, but caution does not mean that they must be prohibited." Germline refers to genetic material being passed from generation to generation through the sperm and egg.

In August, the American Society of Human Genetics and 10 other reproductive medicine organizations concurred with a statement saying that there's no reason to prohibit the sort of embryo-editing research undertaken by the Oregon team. That said, given safety and ethical issues, the statement also argued that at this time it is still "inappropriate to perform germline gene editing that culminates in human pregnancy."

Ultimately, the gene-editing skeptics are calling for something akin to state-imposed eugenics. Early 20th century Progressive Era eugenicists used government power to forcibly prevent parents, via nonconsensual sterilizations, from passing on traits deemed deleterious. Now, 21st century eugenicists want the government to require people to risk passing along genes that the parents think are deleterious. In both cases, the state is empowered to decide what sorts of people are allowed to be born.

People who want to take advantage of modern gene editing seek to correct genes that increase the risk of ill health, and perhaps to add genes that boost their child's chances of having nimbler brains, more vigorous bodies, and greater disease resistance. Individuals may not always make the right decisions with regard to reproduction, but parents are more trustworthy guardians of the human gene pool than any would-be central planners.

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  1. “nonconsensual sterilizations”

    Or as the Schutzstaffel’s logistics department knew them, “discretionary ammunition expenditures”.

  2. “King, who heads the U.K.-based group Human Genetics Alert, wants ‘governments and international organizations to wake up and pass an immediate global ban on creating cloned or G.M. babies, before it is too late.'”

    Clearly they’ve learned from their mistake in failing to ban alcohol and heroin before they were invented. Missed ’em by thaaat much.

    1. Maybe we can try to get murdering your political opponents banned first?

  3. Never fear, Futurists Dear! The Donald is here!
    (And our Dear Leader will be happy to provide His Genetic Blueprint for all of those “designer babies”!!! Oh Joy be unto us all!!!)
    Quotes from The Donald in the “Anti Gravity” column in August 2017 “Scientific American” magazine follow?
    “I have great genes and all that stuff, which I’m a believer in”,
    “God helped me by giving me a certain brain”,
    “I have a very, very high aptitude”,
    “Maybe it’s just something you have. You know, you have the winning gene.”
    I am not making this up! See https://twitter.com/daveweigel/status/ …. (delete me and eat me here)…
    683462119275118592?lang=en for example to confirm the 1st quote?

  4. The downside (according to some “bio-ethnic-cysts”) is that there will be less diversity, ’cause less cripples and sick people…
    Strangely, I have never heard this argument being used against better communicable-disease technologies, and improved highway safety, among other things…

    I know that I’m borrowing trouble here, but? Looking way on down the line, past the preventing of obvious diseases and defects? Which hopefully will go down smoothly with most sensible folks? How about that them thar “designer babies”?!

    All it will take is a pair of new-era 18-year-old hipsters, who think it would be way-cool to raise a man-bear-pig, or a vampire with “sharp, pointy teeth” and literal blood-lust? And then here come the ten billion regulations and regulators, just because of one or two pairs of idiots on a planet of 12 billion people!

    1. Strangely, I have never heard this argument being used against better communicable-disease technologies

      I have. It’s the argument that removing diseases will lead to weaker variety of immune system in humans making populations that are weaker to new diseases. This could lead to significant death from a new super bug. This is similar to the argument many people make about genetic editing.

      1. And how many of these folks who argue this way, will watch their kid die, rather than giving them some artificial antibiotics, so as to keep the gene pool strong? How many of them want to outlaw antibiotics? Such idiots get laughed at, and rightfully so. Yet too many of us nod thoughtfully when “expert bioethicists” blather about the bad outcomes they see coming our way, from whittling down on genetically borne diseases. This is un-grounded hysterical tech-phobia, flat-out.

        1. How many? Quite a few, probably, more than you might think unfortunately. Any parent that would consign their children to disease and death are soulless fucking assholes, of course, but you’ll see it, yeah. Fuck, you see it now! You got people who won’t even let their kids get medicine because they think Yahweh doesn’t want them to, etc etc.

          I actually predict a rising tide of luddism/fundamentalism coming out of this, including among even people who weren’t that way before. If you thought the culture wars were bad before [or still now, for that matter] just wait. It’s gonna get alot worse, LOL. Hell, you’ll probably see some luddite terrorism, too, with both ‘left’ and ‘right’ variants depending what you’re talking about.

          1. What they are really afraid of is rich people being able to create beautiful, healthy and bright children, and these kids would have a big advantage over the poor kids who are stupid, sick and ugly.

  5. When will we discover the gene for booby and wiener sizes? This Trump’s all other causes in importance.

  6. “getting the repaired genes into every cell in 42 out of the 58 embryos they edited….

    “The embryos developed for three days and were never intended to be used to create pregnancies.”

    So in the interests of prolonging human life, they killed 58 human beings? Am I getting that right?

    1. Those 58 human beings had the same rights as all the rest of us human beings, right?

      Then they had a right to go get a job, earn some money, use that money to go down to the local gun shop, stock up on guns and ammo, and fight their way out of the lab, and go live bravely and freely!

      But no, they were deadbeats, and wouldn’t even get off of their blobby, blastocysty butts to get a haircut to look decent for a job interview, even, let alone actually GOING to a job interview! Deadbeats get very-very little sympathy from me…

      1. Your joke works with newborns, too.

        1. Assuming some high tech, and a willing host, it also applies to the living cells lining your cheeks. Those living human cells could have their nuclei stripped out, and placed into an egg cell, cloned, and brought to life. So any time that you eat something very solid, or brush your teeth, you are committing mass murder! Those cheek-lining cells DESERVE to LIVE, you mass murderer!

          1. They haven’t been “placed into an egg cell, cloned, and brought to life.”

            1. And blastocysts don’t have a nervous system, and cannot feel pain, as far as we can tell.

              And what about the blastocysts of gorillas, monkeys, dogs, cats, lizards, insects, and water bears? Do you have it on some authoritative, verifiable source, that human blastocycsts have souls, and the rest do not?

    2. No, but 58 embryos were destroyed.

      1. What species did the embryos belong to? Were they alive?

        1. Human.

          Your argument is a losing one despite that fact. Human embryos at three days of development are not babies.

          I am sympathetic to the pro-life arguments, and I support restrictions on abortions at twenty weeks gestation. Why twenty, and not say, 19 weeks you ask. It is an arbitrary choice made by me that seems reasonable. Our lives are filled with such arbitrary lines.

          1. Doesn’t it bother you that you are suggesting to the government that it “arbitrar[ily]” select living members of the human species as rights-less unpersons?

        2. Did they feel pain?

          1. What about someone who is “feeling no pain” because of all the booze he chugged?

    3. They’re embryos. Potentialities, not actualities. Actual, living, breathing, walking humans far outrank mere embryos.

      1. And they weren’t killed. They let them die the same way they would have had they not been able to attach to the lining of the uterus. This happens in one in ten times that the egg is fertilized.

        1. Just as newborns aren’t killed if they’re exposed out in the wild.

  7. Can’t wait for the new law that requires all embryos to be submitted to the NIH for approval. If the DNA is government approved for life, it can be returned to the host for gestation. Otherwise, it must be discarded as unfit to become a voter. I mean, it is not as if the right to (become) life is more constitutional than the first or second or fourth amendments; which are also subject to reasonable regulations.
    Think of all the savings in Medicare & Medicaid alone.
    Better get rid of Social Security first, though.

    1. You know perfectly well the government is too benevolent to do something that awful!

      /sarc

  8. Seems to me it’s committing aggression against the baby

    1. How about rejecting a date with an unattractive woman in favor of an MIT grad/part-time model? Is that “aggression”?

      Or are you one of those people that think that selectively breeding carrots to be orange over a millennium was “okay” but GMOs and CRISPR are The Devil’s Handiwork?

  9. Human beings have been genetically-modifying their offspring for as long as they’ve been deciding with whom to have sex.

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