Tuesday, June 12, 2018

Proposed Policies For Advancing Embryonic Cell Germline-Editing Technology

niskanencenter |  In a previous post, I touched on the potential social and ethical consequences that will likely emerge in the wake of Dr. Shoukhrat Mitalipov’s recent experiment in germline-edited embryos. The short version: there’s probably no stopping the genetic freight train. However, there are steps we can take to minimize the potential costs, while capitalizing on the many benefits these advancements have to offer us. In order to do that, however, we need to turn our attention away from hyperbolic rhetoric of “designer babies” and focus on the near-term practical considerations—mainly, how we will govern the research, development, and application of these procedures.
Before addressing the policy concerns, however, it’s important to understand the fundamentals of what is being discussed in this debate. In the previous blog, I noted the difference between somatic cell editing and germline editing—one of the major ethical faultlines in this issue space. In order to have a clear perspective of the future possibilities, and current limitations, of genetic modification, let’s briefly examine how CRISPR actually works in practice. 

CRISPR stands for “clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats”—a reference to segments of DNA that function as a defense used by bacteria to ward off foreign infections. That defense system essentially targets specific patterns of DNA in a virus, bacteria, or other threat and destroys it. This approach uses Cas9—an RNA-guided protein—to search through a cell’s genetic material until it finds a genetic sequence that matches the sequence programmed into its guide RNA. Once it finds its target, the protein splices the two strands of the DNA helix. Repair enzymes can then heal the gap in the broken DNA, or filled using new genetic information introduced into the sequence. Conceptually, we can think of CRISPR as the geneticist’s variation of a “surgical laser knife, which allows a surgeon to cut out precisely defective body parts and replace them with new or repaired ones.”

The technology is still cutting edge, and most researchers are still trying to get a handle on the technical difficulties associated with its use. Right now, we’re still in the Stone Age of genetic research. Even though we’ve made significant advancements in recent years, we’re still a long, long way from editing human IQs of our children on-demand. That technology is much further into the future and some doubt that we’ll ever be able to “program” inheritable traits into our individual genomes. In short, don’t expect any superhumanly intelligent, disease-resistant super soldiers any time soon.

The Parallels Between Artificial Intelligence and Genetic Modification
There are few technologies that inspire fantastical embellishments in popular media as much as the exaggerations surrounding genetic modification. In fact, the only technology that comes close to comparison—and indeed, actually parallels the rhetoric quite closely—is artificial intelligence (AI).