Scientist and biophysicist He Jiankui has caused quite a stir in the scientific community. In 2018, the researcher from Shenzhen, China, declared that he successfully modified the genetic makeup of a human embryo using CRISPR Technology. Based on this research, the first genetically modified kids Lulu and Nana, were born. According to He, the study was able to successfully block off the path where HIV passes through. He further added that he edited nothing else, and that the twins are healthy and thriving.
Despite these claims, scientists and researchers unanimously condemned the act as downright reckless, irresponsible, and negligent. While genetic engineering in humans is a promising endeavor, the existing technology is still in its infancy. It is unethical to expose a live human embryo to the technology without knowing the full extent of its impact.
Are there side effects to the process that will only be revealed as genetically modified kids grow older? Is there a chance that the procedure can make them sicker? Experts in the field have yet to find out. Until there are answers to these questions, the magic word should be “restraint”.
Looking at the Bigger Picture: The Risks of Genetically Modified Kids
While He Jiankui’s action has been considered reckless, the results of his attempt are comparable to a door that was left ajar. Lulu and Nana, as the first genetically modified kids, paved the way to a new frontier in genetic engineering. It will not be too long until someone follows and comes through the door.
In truth, the path of pursuing designer babies and genetically modified kids will attract all sorts of attention. From governments to corporations to groups pushing for ideologies. Falling into the wrong hands, risks abound in genetic engineering, and the effects are irreversible:
- CRISPR is so powerful, and scientists should take every precaution on how they wield this power. One mistake can destroy all the efforts and years of research poured into the technology. There could be damage to the entire field, and all benefits and potential uses of the tool can go to waste.
- Genetically modified kids are healthier, more disease-resistant, and can be designed to be more intelligent. Having an entire population that requires fewer health costs can be seductive to governments. Consequently, totalitarian governments can tap on the power of genetic engineering to push for eugenics and genetic cleansing.
- Genetic modification permanently alters the human germline. When genetically modified kids have children of their own, their edited genetic codes will also be passed on. Mutations, alterations, and environmental factors should be considered. No one knows how these modified germlines will impact future generations. Until there is an assurance to welfare and safety, genetic modification is not worth the risk.
Genetic Engineering: A Door to New Frontiers or New Risks?
In the beginning, the foreseen purpose of genetic engineering in humans was to put an end to various life-threatening diseases. By switching off the sequence that carries the genetic expressions of diseases such as cancer, sickle cell, hemophilia, and Huntington’s disease, genetically modified kids can live healthier and longer lives. For couples wanting to build a healthy family, genetically modified kids don’t sound bad.
However, once adaption of the technology spreads, genetic engineering will not be limited to health and medical purposes. Imagine a would-be parent inside a genetics clinic saying, “Yes, turn off the cancer gene. While you’re at it, can you throw in blue eyes, athletic build, and intelligence, please?” In a not-so-distant future and as wider acceptance ensues, vanity may take over, and designer babies will be the new norm.
We can all agree that humans could use a bit of betterment. Some of us may wish to be taller, have a different face, or be more intelligent. If we cannot do it for ourselves, maybe we can achieve it for our offspring. As a species, genetic engineering is an adaptation method –to survive, our progeny must be the fittest and the healthiest.
With the power that genetic engineering wields, societies must take extra precautions. Without caution, the risk that the technology will be used with unethical and questionable intentions is higher. The technology and means to modify the human blueprint have arrived, and banning or suppressing this technology will not help. Instead, academic and scientific communities, governments, and businesses must work together for check and balance.