Gene Editing: The Perfect Human

What is the perfect human? Tall, strong, immune to disease and with a flawless set of pearly whites. Intelligent and creative, with a mild temperament and exceptionally good hair, the world will be a better place when this superior form of human becomes the norm. Well, it's a Hollywood fantasy - but for how long?

Gene editing lets scientists change DNA. Since DNA is the code for everything that makes up living creatures, being able to manipulate it gives scientists incredible power. The whole idea of editing genes began in the early 1900s but it is only now that we are benefiting from the more than 100 years of research and experimentation. Modern gene editing removes or changes genes to prevent and cure diseases. This is an extraordinary step forward. But the ethical and moral questions are numerous. For instance:

  1. Is it moral to edit the genes of an embryo without its permission? Is the parents' permission enough?
  2. Gene therapy is expensive and so only the wealthy will have access to it - is growing the inequality gap between the rich and poor immoral?
  3. Is it acceptable to use gene editing to improve height or athletic ability?
  4. Should scientists ever be able to edit germline cells - the ones that are passed down from generation to generation?
And, of course, history shows that if given half a chance, technology will be misused. For example, once this kind of technology gets into the wrong hands, a megalomaniac dictator could potentially use it to create the perfect, oh, say, I don't know, Aryan.

We are closer to being able to customize babies than you might think. In 2018, He Jiankui became famous for being the first person to genetically edit the genome of human babies. Using CRISPR technology, twin girls were born who were genetically edited to be immune from HIV (the father was HIV positive, the mother was not). While the girls were healthy when born, whether they would suffer long-term health issues is unknown.

Gene editing is a very important field and one that we should definitely dedicate our best minds and resources to. Why spend billions of dollars and unquantifiable resources treating illnesses when we can prevent them altogether? Despite the controversy and widespread condemnation, He Jiankui proved it can be done. But the risks of misuse and immoral use of this technology are high and there are difficult questions that we need to address. 

This is how I see it playing out: If the technology to create designer babies is perfected and made available, most countries will regulate it according to an internationally agreed-upon standard (much like nuclear weapons or seatbelts in cars). This will work for a while until we start to justify "breaking the rules". When we start sending colonists into space, how long do you think it will take before NASA uses gene editing to give astronauts better stamina in low-gravity or low-oxygen environments? What is the red line? Don't forget, there will always be those governments who will stop at nothing to give their countries an advantage, be it in the Olympics or on the battlefield. Then the rest of the world will have to keep up, and the spiral begins.

If our research and development leads inexorably to the creation of the ultimate human, when she performs a flawless acrobatic routine, at least she'll also get a 10 for her perfect smile.

Resources:
National Human Genome Research Institute: What is Genome Editing
History.com: Eugenics
Wikipedia: He Jiankui 


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