Modifying Human Embryos: A Biotech Miracle, or One Step Too Far?

In 1997, Columbia Pictures released a Sci-Fi thriller called Gattaca. The setting takes place in a world full of genetically engineered people whose lives are pre-determined by their DNA.

In the film, people are matched together based upon their gene types, babies are engineered for best-of-breed in labs, and their roles/careers in society are directly linked to their DNA profile.

That’s simultaneously extremely scary… and extremely efficient. Where’s the balance?

The movie was ahead of its time, as the Human Genome Project for just mapping out our DNA — to say nothing of modifying it — didn’t kick off until 2001.

Later, after a decade of research beginning in the early 2000’s, several scientists at MIT and UC Berkeley developed CRISPR-Cas9, a powerful new technology for editing genomes.

Later in 2013, studies were published showing that the same editing techniques would work in the genomes of human cells as well — not just animals.  After this, there was no doubt the CRISPR technology could be used to rewrite DNA, and possible treat rare metabolic problems and genetic diseases such as hemophilia or Huntington’s.

But then there’s the ethical side.

Saving lives is important. However, experimenting with live human embryos has always been the fine line no one has crossed… at least until now.

On April 18th, Chinese scientists published in the journrnal Protein & Cell that they had tweaked the genes of human embryos for the first time in history.

More specifically, the group tried to modify a gene responsible for a deadly blood disorder in “non-viable” embryos.  These are embryos that cannot result in live birth… but modifying them still crossed the point of no returnrn. A human genome has been edited.

The news was so controversial that when the Chinese scientists tried to initially publish their results in both the journrnals Nature and Science, their paper was rejected.

Many researchers in the community still think this technology could be invaluable, but don’t believe it’s mature enough to be utilized in this type of research. One day though, in the not-too-distant future, this technology could eliminate genetic diseases like sickle cell anemia, Huntington’s, and cystic fibrosis.

Personally, I’m in no hurry to biologically engineer a new race of humans. But I also see how this kind of technology could eliminate unnecessary pain and suffering in the world.

I trust we’ll find that balance… and in the meantime, I’ll continue to look for ways to profit off these developments.

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