Hearing about new discoveries in the field of genetics always tends to get people’s thoughts running in a certain direction. We think: superhuman looks, superhuman strength and superhuman brainpower — basically a genetically-modified species of super humans casually strolling around the planet. Then we correct our self-absorbed, conceited ways and think of the technology’s other obvious applications: curing diseases. With the help of Jennifer Doudna’s breakthrough, which she presented in her TED Talk, we may be looking at not only the cure, but also the identification and prevention of diseases in the foreseeable future.
Doudna is a geneticist who recently co-discovered a genetic tool that now allows us to edit genes by directly manipulating the DNA. It is called CRISPR-Cas9 (short for Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats) and is actually a defense mechanism used by bacteria to fight viral infections. Research and experiments done on mice and monkey cells tell us that it is possible to accurately change their DNA using this technology. It also tells us that human embryos can be manipulated. For some individuals this is great news. For people like me, red flags come up.
Although we have a long way to go when it comes to identifying which genes code for which specific traits, it is possible that trying to synthesize the countless opinions and questions we have on the ethical implications of this advancement could take longer. Until then, Doudna has called for a “global pause” on all applications of this technology and has initiated a discussion about these issues. I agree that we need to stop and take a step back. Then we need to devise a systematic and logical way of covering ethical ground. We need to build walls that we know we absolutely cannot cross and set up permeable boundaries where the differences between ethical and unethical blur. Nevertheless, by doing so we are taking a considerable amount of time out of the next ten years that could be spent on making a difference using her technology and adding it to the consecutive ten, causing delay.
To deal with this conflict it could be helpful to think about the ethical issues we faced (and still face) back when Dolly the sheep was cloned. Religious and secular perspectives tend to hold opposing views, and we need to reach a common ground in that respect. Moreover, the effect that cloning humans can have on the structure of human society is still unknown. We are also not yet fully aware of the safety of cloning. Similarly, as of now we have no way of predicting the long-term effects of editing DNA. It could eradicate the concept of genetic diseases or it could increase the chances of mutations. Since we cannot be certain, it is important to tread these waters cautiously.
Discoveries of this kind induce a sense of fear and doubt in me because of the absurd amount of power it gives us to toy with the very compounds that make us functional. What makes CRISPR scarier is that Doudna calls it a relatively simple technology. This implies that researchers will not back away from experimenting with it as they did with other more arduous genetic engineering processes. With a snip of genetic scissors, we have given ourselves the power to change a life or destroy one. Our first decision to consider and set down ethical guidelines is a responsible one, but what follows?