‘A Brave New World? Human Gene Editing and Bioethics’ – Ustinov Seminar Team

By Marianna Iliadou

Have you ever wondered how human gene editing operates or ever worried about its implications?

On Wednesday 28th June, the Ustinov Seminar Team hosted a workshop titled ‘A Brave New World? Human Gene Editing and Bioethics’. Inspired by Aldous Huxley’s novel, the purpose of the workshop was to explore the possibilities that today’s human gene editing offer and what its impact might be. To facilitate the discussion, we had two experts joining us, Dr Sushma-Nagaraja Grellscheid from the Department of Biosciences, Durham University, and Dr Ilke Turkmendag from Newcastle Law School.

The workshop kicked off with Dr Sushma’s presentation on CRISPR Cas9, a method currently available that can modify the human genome. After briefly explaining CRISPR Cas9, Dr Sushma pointed out that through this method it is possible to irreversibly mutate a gene and it can be used on embryos to cure serious diseases such as Huntington’s. A huge fuss has been made lately around CRISPR Cas9 as it is cheap and easy to operate. However, Dr Sushma explained that it still needs highly specialised equipment and specific standards to fulfil.

Credit: Alexandra Verzuh

Then, the baton was handed over to Dr Ilke, who went on presenting eugenics and the implications of germline editing. Dr Ilke explained the fear for designer babies. With germline genetic interventions, the choices for future parents would increase considerably, which is a main cause of concern. They could decide what traits their children would have. Dr Ilke finished her presentation by highlighting the need for public engagement to the debate of human gene editing and not merely the involvement of scientists, legislators, politicians.

Afterwards we opened the floor for discussion. The audience engaged in a variety of questions and the issues discussed were, among others, diversity, identity, human rights and the probability of designer babies. A special importance was given to heritage and the effect germline mutation would have to future generations, due to its irreversibility. Then, as with all ethical concerns, the issue of religion was also raised, however not only through the eyes of Christianity, but also Islam and Hinduism. Another issue was disability and discrimination and how current people with disabilities could become ‘second-class’ citizens as their disabilities would disappear in the years to come, although this would be an issue of future concern. Similarly, there could be an advantage for people from developed countries against people from developing countries, who might not have access to human gene editing. This, being a question of inequality among states and people, raises additionally the issue of variation in regulation, where some states are open to adopting human gene editing while others not, creating a further diversity in practice. Given that human gene editing is still at an early stage, it exposes us to dangers as well, as we do not fully understand its possible side effects.  Lastly, drawing the line between the use of human gene editing for therapy and enhancement is a daunting task and there is no safe answer at the moment. Concerning enhancement, it is still not clear whether there are genes that promote abilities such as being a musician, athlete etc. This makes the question of enhancement even more far-fetched.

Credit: Alexandra Verzuh

To conclude, is human gene editing a good thing? If I could summarise the workshop, I would stress that human gene editing through CRISPR Cas9 can be a very helpful tool to eliminate serious diseases. In doing so, it puts in jeopardy diversity and it exposes us to unknown risks, but it is always up to human beings and the way we will utilise these methods. Therapy or enhancement? Both our experts highlighted that it depends on the use made of this method and that we can avoid its drawbacks through carefully regulating it.

So, will human gene editing lead to a Brave New World? I guess we will have to wait and see.

 

Special thanks to Dr Sushma-Nagaraja Grellscheid and Dr Ilke Turkmendag for their kind participation and to everyone who attended the workshop.

If you would like to find out more information about Ustinov Seminar Series, or would like to get involved, please email ustinov.seminar@durham.ac.uk

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