Monday, March 13, 2017

Editing the Human Genome

This piece by Gilbert Mailaender which appeared on the Commonweal site, is worth reading; especially for those of us who are interested in science and medicine:

It has to do with the "....development of what is called CRISPR/Cas9, a new method for “editing” the human genome.  Attempts at gene therapy, although not terribly successful, have been around for some time. What CRISPR/Cas9 appears to offer, however, is an efficient and precise method for altering (both by addition and deletion) an organism’s genetic material. We stand on the brink of an age in which our capacity to modify the human genome may increase enormously. And not surprisingly scientists are eager to proceed with gene-editing research."

"On the one hand, editing germ cells to eliminate serious disease has the potential to prevent suffering not only for a single individual but also for that person’s descendants. It eliminates the need for continued interventions at the somatic level for each new generation. On the other hand, that potential good is exactly the problem: germline editing may eliminate disease not only for a single individual but also for that person’s descendants. That is to say, whereas somatic-cell genetic therapy is simply an extension of what medicine has always sought to do, we might wonder whether germ-cell editing should even be characterized as medicine.  The “patient” is no longer a particular suffering human being; instead, the object of such proposed interventions is what Paul Ramsey once called “that celebrated nonpatient, the human species.” The possibility of unforeseen and unintended consequences is considerable, and it is not silly to wonder whether human beings—ourselves included—should ever seek to exercise this kind of control over those who will come after us. Recognizing such concerns, the report says: “Heritable germline editing trials must be approached with caution, but caution does not mean that they must be prohibited.” Which is to say, it sets before us a yellow light."

It seems likely that it's not a question of "if" human beings will use this technology to alter their genome, but when and how.  Will we proceed with due caution and respect for life?  The author's final paragraph is relevant: 

"No doubt it is generally wise to let a yellow light make us cautious. But there may also be moments when we should remember that there always remains another possibility and that moral seriousness might sometimes be measured by our willingness to be as wise as kindergarteners and to know when to “stop, stop, stop.”'


  1. The concept of domestication may offer us a way to think about this issue.

    Domestication of animals meant not only genetic selection through breeding but through the environment that we humans controlled. Many domestic animals cannot survive in the wild.

    It could be argued that we humans by going beyond hunting gathering to agriculture and cities have been selectively breeding ourselves through those environments in ways that have changing our gene pool for a long time. Many of those gene pool changes may have included keeping genes that would not have survived under harsher conditions.

    So if we have genetic conditions today in which people with great disabilities can only survive with a great deal of help, then maybe it is merely restoring a more “natural” genetics that allows these genes to leave our gene pool.

    I have only a little knowledge about domestication, namely one of my mentors was Robert Boice who wrote a widely quoted article on domestication long ago.

    I used “Boice human domestication” on Google Scholar which brought up a whole bunch of material

    This one looked particularly promising.

    Boice was an animal social behaviorist. But he became interested in faculty development, did much research and practice in the area, and wrote a very good book Advice for New Faculty Members: Nihil Nimus. It can help anyone who wants to be more productive.

    Looks like you cannot put links into comments. Maybe that will save us from some of the mischief makers.

  2. Good point, Jack, that we have already been involved in editing genes; although on a much slower timeline.

  3. We are changing animals all the time and in many ways - researchers in Australia have been infecting mosquitoes with a kind of bacteria that will make them unable to pass on diseases - and we usually don't ask if that's ok.

    I think the reason we get hung up when it comes to human changes is a residual belief that God made us this way and he doesn't make mistakes. JPII and Veritatis Splendor. But we're changing all the time anyway, life is always mutating, and maybe it's ok to take control of those changes instead of letting them be random.

    Keith Ward had an interesting talk on this and gene therapy ... "Superhumans? Interfering with Nature" ...

  4. As someone with an inherited genetic disease here are some questions I consider:

    1. My disease is likely to cause a quick death after several years, and management is not invasive or fraught with terrible side effects. I'm not sure this is such a bad way to go. I will die of something regardless, and the devil you know ... If I choose to "keep" my cancer, am I guilty of suicide?

    2. Do parents owe it to their offspring to edit their genes to eradicate diseases if they can?

    3. Assuming genetic editing is deemed a public good, like vaccination, how do you make it available to everyone? Only the very rich and very poor can get affordable treatment in the current health care set-up.

    4. How far do we go with genetic manipulation? Eradicating cystic fibrosis, Alzheimer's, and schizophrenia is one thing. Making people blond and blue-eyed with straight hair plays to racial and ethnic biases.

    CRISPR technology also has some scientists excited about cloning a Neanderthal or perhaps a Neanderthal zygote.

    Creating extinct people just to study them?

    Lots of new ethical areas to study.

  5. No problem with eliminating genes like cystis fibrosis. But human "improvement", especially in this greedy superficial time, is doubtful. Some people think of genes that produce melanin as defective. For now, I'd say the great natural genetic annealing algorithm has done rather well. Genetic manipulation according to limited human concepts could drive us into a genetic dead end. I would consider intentional genetic manipulation as dangerous. The only time I would consider it would be in the case of settling other planets such as giving humans a bird respiratory system to deal with a low oxygen atmosphere.

  6. Pursuing narrow technological goals in isolation from a larger view, without context, is propelling us toward ecological collapse. I would add gene editing to the long list of technologucal advances hastily and poorly applied. Technological procreation of hominids out of curiosity and not love, no thanks.

  7. Jean illuminates another injustice of the health system. Everybody's taxes are used to fund research developing therapies that only SOME people can afford. Either universal health care or much more progressive taxation.

    1. Everybody's taxes are used to fund many things that don't benefit them. I have never had children, but over the years, have paid a small fortune in school taxes. Common good, etc. Yes, I know. That is the price one pays to live in society.

    2. Does anyone know how to change one's Google name?

    3. I don't buy your example at all. It's one thing to advance the common good. It's another thing to have socialism only for the rich. Universal health care or let the rich pay for what will only benefit them.

  8. Jim, try this ...

  9. I have a genetic disease too - Stargardt disease
    I wish someone further up my family tree had gotten rid of it before it made its way to me :)