Researchers at Sun Yat-sen University in Guangzhou, China published a paper on April 18, 2015, detailing the first use of the “gene editing” technology CRISPR in human embryos. The news initiated a global media firestorm about the irresponsibility of attempting to create genetically modified humans.
The experiments were largely unsuccessful. But as gene editing tools are refined in labs around the world, they are expected to allow easier, cheaper and more accurate insertion or deletion of genes than ever before. If perfected, this powerful new technology could contribute either to great good or to profound harm. On one hand, gene editing holds real promise for helping people who are sick. This application, known as gene therapy, affects only an individual consenting patient.
But alterations to the genes of reproductive cells, known as human germline modification or inheritable genetic modification, would be very different. Such efforts would be experiments with engineering the traits of future children, and the altered genes and traits would be passed on forever more through the generations.
Crossing this threshold has long been considered dangerously unacceptable for both safety and social reasons. It is prohibited by several international human rights treaties and more than 40 countries. However, the United States does not currently have any legal prohibitions in place. Here are seven reasons why it is time for that to change:
- Profound health risks to future children. Altering the genomes of our offspring — not just the first generation but all later ones as well— means irreversibly changing every cell in their bodies, forever. The risks of such biologically extreme experimentation would be huge, from the early stages of embryonic development through the life span. Even with the latest gene-editing tools, “off-target effects” are an unsolved problem, and even if genes can be added or deleted in the right place, we can’t predict what those added or deleted genes might do in the cell or the organism.