In the 1997 film Gattaca, gene editing takes center stage. Following the birth of a child with a genetic predisposition to disease and a likely death before the age of 30, a wealthy couple tries for a better result through state-of-the-art genetic screening of the next embryo. It was not a box-office blockbuster. But it starred indie film favorite Ethan Hawke and was heralded as a precursor of things to come.
In the 90s, gene editing was theoretical. But it wasn’t long before it became technically feasible. The introduction of the gene-editing tool CRISPR in 2013 raised the possibility that scientists could engineer embryos resistant to disease.
Now, a team of London-based scientists has used CRISPR to modify human embryos genetically. The results were alarming, to say the least. The embryos, none of which were grown past 14 days, showed unintended edits to their genetic makeup that the researchers said could result in birth defects or cancer later in life.
The results suggest that CRISPR is more of a hatchet than the molecular scissors it’s often compared to. “Our work underscores the importance of further basic research to assess the safety of genome editing techniques in human embryos, which will inform debates about the potential clinical use of this technology,” the researchers concluded.
Since its introduction, scientists have touted CRISPR as a means to achieve an optimized life free of genetic predispositions deemed undesirable. Independent of the ethics of such decisions, the London research has now validated the concerns of critics who have pointed to grave consequences of editing or removing genes from the genomic code of human beings.
It remains to be seen who will decide what’s desirable and undesirable. And, even if the technology can be wielded predictably and safely, there will be the inevitable ethical predicament of such methods being affordable by only those who are wealthy.
This is no longer a theoretical discussion. A Chinese scientist He Jiankui has attempted to edit the genes of twin babies to make them resistant to HIV. Following the international outrage, the Chinese government suppressed news of the children. So, we don’t know about their progress.
In 2019, a Russian biologist Denis Rebrikov announced plans to use CRISPR to create gene-edited children. Some Russian parents have volunteered their embryos, according to Rebrikov. The Russian government has yet to approve his experiment.
Here in the US, the use of federal funds for such research is banned by law. And the FDA has imposed a moratorium. But there are no laws prohibiting it.
My upcoming novel—False Flag—assumes that such ethical concerns have been resolved (at least in a parallel universe) and stars a genetically modified human. But the London research suggests that there’s a long road ahead before that will be possible, never mind ethical.