The Ethical Questions Surrounding Gene Editing
Gene editing is an advanced and improving technology that has the potential to make significant strides in the field of science. Applications of gene editing such as CRISPR-Cas9 can be used to cure devastating genetic illnesses such as sickle cell anemia and multiple sclerosis. When it comes to editing the human genome, however, there are many ethical issues that can arise. Scientists are fearful that such technologies can wind up in the wrong hands and result in consequences that can affect multiple generations to come. One of the most controversial cases involving gene editing revolves around scientist He Jiankui, who announced at the 2019 Second International Summit on Human Genome Editing, that he had edited the genes of two human embryos and that they had been brought to term. There was immediate outcry from scientists across the world, and he was subjected to intense social pressure, including the removal of his affiliations for having allegedly disregarded ethical norms and his patients' safety. This case brought about many opinions and arguments from the scientific community about when, if at all, gene editing can be used and whether or not it has the potential to be useful or detrimental in society. Views on this issue vary from proponents for gene editing saying that it can be highly useful in the field of medicine and healing human illnesses whereas those who are against say that it can lead to a plethora of unwanted consequences and affect not just the individual but also future generations, depending on the cells that have been altered.
One of the primary arguments used to justify gene editing is that it is permissible to use as long as the cells that are being edited are limited to somatic cells rather than germ line cells. Somatic cells are the body cells of an individual, and any changes made to these cells affect only that person. Germ line cells, on the other hand, are cells that produce sperm and egg and any alterations made to these cells not only affects the individual but also their future generations (Todd, 2019). The possible consequences of this are difficult to predict. But such technology could prove useful for families who have watched their children suffer from devastating genetic diseases and ensure that their future lineage does not suffer as well. However, some scientists argue that when it comes to gene editing, one should look beyond the somatic/germ line barrier and instead look at the extent to which gene editing will be helpful in a given situation (Cwik, 2019). For example, if gene editing is being used to correct a genetic abnormality that causes diseases and results in an embryo that has two healthy alleles of a common gene, it is considered acceptable. (Cwik,2019). Furthermore, bioethicist John Fletcher and scientist W. French Anderson added to the argument that the somatic/germ line limit is nonexistent by saying the gene editing and therapies and cures derived from the technology are done so with the intent to reduce human suffering. Therefore, it implies the ethical imperative that society ought not to draw a moral line between germ line and somatic cells but rather disorders with the greatest extent of suffering and potential for early death. (Evans,2021 ). The opinion and judgment of these scientists can be trusted because they are highly knowledgeable in the subject of gene editing and their words have been cited in many journals about gene editing as well.
Furthermore, another ethical issue regarding gene editing is whether or not it should be allowed to be used for enhancing one’s genome. Across the scientific community, many agree that if the use of gene editing is being applied to help an individual be cured of an illness they wouldn't be able to without gene editing, then its usage should not be inhibited. Many, however, also agree that the ethical line should be drawn if gene editing is being used to edit the genome of an individual who is already healthy. For example, in the case involving Jiankui He, he was editing the genome of two embryos that were already healthy in order to give them the more desirable trait of being immune to the HIV virus. (Cwik, 2019). While this can be seen as helpful for the embryos, the usage of gene editing was not called for in this situation because it was not a life or death situation. This argument has been formulated in many science journals that have used a variety of sources and citations to support it. Therefore, the information used to support this perspective can be considered trustworthy.
His experiment with the two embryos also leads to the ethical question of how safe it is to utilize gene editing. According to multiple scientific papers about its safety that have been peer reviewed and are reliable sources of information, gene editing and technologies such as CRISPR are fairly new and advancing technologies, and the unintentional effects it can have on an individual has not been studied to a full extent. For example, the experiment He performed intended to alter the two embryos to become immune to the HIV virus. Instead, of the two embryos that were implanted, one had a frameshift mutation on both alleles and the other showed a 15-base pair deletion on only one allele. (Jodie,2020) Frameshift mutations have a high probability of disrupting protein structure, and therefore the function of the organism. The 15–base pair deletion, however, will result in five missing amino acids when the protein is translated, and its effect on the protein's function is unknown (Jodie,2020). He's team could have frozen the embryos, duplicated the sequence alterations in other cell lines, and tested whether or not the genetic changes actually conferred disease resistance, before actually implanting the embryos, but it does not appear that they made an effort to fully understand the actual effect of the alterations they had made. (Jodie, 2020) With all of the risks associated with the CRISPR editing process, embryos should not be implanted if the scientists are unsure of the effects and he was wrong in not doing this. (Jodie,2020). Furthermore, gene editing has been known to result in mosaicism, which is when there is more than one genotype present in an individual, and off target effects, which is when there is unintended cleavage and mutations at untargeted genomic sites that resemble the intended target sequence.( National Genome for Human Research, 2017). Although genome-editing technologies such as CRISPR–Cas9 offer a fairly precise way to edit the genome, they have been shown to generate some unwanted changes to genes, and can produce a range of different outcomes even among cells in the same embryo. It could be years before researchers are able to iron out these difficulties, says Haoyi Wang, a developmental biologist at the Chinese Academy of Sciences' Institute of Zoology in Beijing, and a commission member (Heidi, 2020). In addition, Wang says, scientists need to develop better methods for thoroughly sequencing a human genome from single cells, so that an edited embryo can be screened in detail for unwanted genetic changes(Heidi, 2020) This brings up the issue of the ethicality of gene editing and whether or not it is worth it to edit an embryo so that they are free of a specific illness but at the expense of other defects in their genome.
Overall, gene editing is a highly controversial issue with many arguments supporting both its use and its absence. It has the potential to be an incredibly useful technology for society but can also be deadly if wound up in the wrong hands. The ethical issues surrounding gene editing is an ongoing issue with regards to its safety, how it should be used, and in which situations it should not be used. But with further research and development, there will be a more clear and coherent understanding of these problems and how it can be solved.
BY: Tauba Ashrafi
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