The breakthrough of CRISPR-Cas9 has revolutionized the scientific community. Limitless possibilities on what scientists can manipulate within the human genome have become conceivable. But many have hit the brakes on this research, calling for a worldwide debate on the ethics of utilizing this technology, as concerns about the exploitation of this technology arise (Saey 1). CRISPR-Cas9 is utilized by bacteria to essentially cut viral DNA to render it ineffective, and subsequently stop infection (Saey 2).
CRISPR stands for Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats and Cas9 is an enzyme which assists with the process. It is analogous to ripping out a page in a book and replacing it with a clean version. The rise of this innovative technology has stirred a debate on the morality of its use. The ethics of CRISPR-Cas9 technology concerning both germline and somatic uses are debated globally.GERMLINE EDITING Germline editing cannot be deemed ethical on humans due to the risk of unknown consequences. Germline editing is modification of germ cells, such as eggs and sperm, that can be passed onto future generations.
Prominent scientific writer Otieno Mo observes, “it may be impossible to know the effect of genetic modification of an embryo with precision until after birth. Even then, potential problems may take years to surface” (Mo 2). The accuracy of CRISPR-Cas9 technology is not known in humans, and it may never be known until a genetically modified embryo is born (Mo 2). Because of this hazardous uncertainty, it would be unethical to perform such operations on humans as these procedures could lead to potentially dangerous effects.
Daryl Sas and Hannah Lawrenz from Geneva College endorse Mo’s observation by arguing, “It will not be possible to determine the full impact of these cuts and insertions until after the baby is born since some genes are not expressed until after birth” (Sas and Lawrenz 87). Again, until the uncertainty of what germline editing will bring diminishes, it cannot be morally correct to edit human genes (Sas and Lawrenz 87). The precarious outcomes simply cannot ethically allow a genetically modified embryo to grow until further research is done. However, many assert that withholding technology that could eliminate debilitating genetic disorders is unscrupulous, as it would be denying a possible cure to future generations. Three prominent stem cell researchers, Donald Kohn, Matthew Porteus, and Andrew Scharenberg claim, “The devastating nature of certain genetic diseases morally drives physicians and scientists to find ways of curing or preventing such diseases” (Kohn et al. 2554). This negates Mo’s and Sas and Lawrenz’s argument by suggesting that it is immoral to deny technology that can eliminate diseases.
The nature of these diseases are incapacitating, and CRISPR has the capacity to cure it (Kohn et al. 2554). Therefore, refusing this technology to those who need it is unethical. In agreement with Kohn, Porteus, and Scharenberg, Nobel-prize winning geneticist Craig Mello says, “In the distant future, I could imagine that altered germ lines would protect humans against cancer, diabetes and other age-related problems” (qtd.
in Cyranoski 272). Rather than damaging the germline, Mello believes altered germlines would be beneficial for humans, as it could eliminate genetically-linked disorders. Use of CRISPR can be ethically justified, as improved life for future generations is justification enough to use this technology (Cyranoski 272). Kohn, Porteus, and Scharenberg would agree with Mello that refusing CRISPR for improved life would be unethical, as humanity would benefit more from its use.SOMATIC EDITING Somatic cell editing can be considered immoral because of the dangers that may stem from it.
Somatic cells are mature body cells, so modifications would not be passed onto progeny. Law clerk Tara Melillo recognized that, “some critics fear that the technology will usher in a generation of designer babies and ‘a dystopia of superpeople'” (Melillo 765). One of the dangers of somatic cell editing is the rise of “designer babies” in which parents would pick and choose traits for their child (Melillo 765). This is morally questionable, as picking desirable traits, such as intelligence or athleticism, could lead to the creation of superhumans (Melillo 765). This risk deems somatic editing unscrupulous.
Scientific writer David Cyranoski develops Melillo’s point further by arguing that another concern for somatic cell editing is that, “Nucleases could make mutations at locations other than those targeted, potentially causing disease” (Cyranoski 272). CRISPR may be trying to fix a problem, but can unintentionally create another one, which can lead to disease (Cyranoski 272). This potential prospect renders CRISPR’s somatic use immoral, as scientists cannot possibly edit a human without complete assurance of no unforeseen complications. On the contrary, somatic editing can prove to be more ethical than current gene-selection techniques. Geneticist Tina Saey brings up genetic testing pre-CRISPR. She argues, “Gene testing of embryos may require creating a dozen or more embryos before finding one that doesn’t carry the disease. The rest of the embryos would be destroyed.
Many people find that prospect ethically questionable” (Saey 2). With current gene-selection techniques, multiple embryos are formed, the best one chosen, and the rest are regarded as genetically disadvantaged and discarded (Saey 2). This process is seen by many as immoral.
Christopher Gyngell and Thomas Douglas from University of Oxford along with bioethicist Julian Savulescu augment this by adding CRISPR would allow, “multiple changes to be made to a single embryo, and could therefore target many different genes simultaneously” (Gyngell et al. 1). The ethical concerns behind discarding multiple embryos would be abated, as CRISPR requires a single embryo with modifications (Gyngell et al. 1). Moreover, multiple modifications can be made to a single embryo, so somatic editing can be more ethical than current techniques (Gyngell et al. 1). In addition, according to forensic anthropologists Kewal Krishan, Tanuj Kanchan, and Bahadur Singh, “For now, scientists suggest that cure can be achieved at somatic cell level because the use of such techniques in germ cells raises a possibility of unpredictable outcomes” (Krishan et al.
2). Somatic cell editing has already been regarded as more moral than germline editing (Krishan et al. 2).
Scientists have conceded that a cure can be achieved somatically (Krishan et al. 2). Editing in germline cells is unpredictable, but with somatic editing, scientists have more control (Krishan et al. 2). For this reason, somatic cell editing is not immoral and should be utilized, as it is considered more ethical than current methods and germline editing. SOLUTION The use of CRISPR-Cas9 is widely debated and there are numerous diverse opinions. Many countries use CRISPR, so international conventions in which ethical guidelines are set would benefit scientists and individuals who hope to use this technology in the future. These will ensure ethical and legal use of CRISPR-Cas9.
Undoubtedly, not everyone will agree with these ethical guidelines, but a compromise can be reached, in which people who want to utilize CRISPR for curative reasons will be allowed to. Germline editing should be barred, as the outcomes are unknown and can be perilous to the embryo. Somatic editing can be permitted, but with restrictions. For the sake of precluding a rise of “designer babies,” it should only be utilized for therapeutic reasons, not enhancement. Humanity can move forward in curing genetically-debilitating diseases while avoiding the ethically concerning rise of genetically-enhanced people.