The human genome is complex, but DNA sequences are written in combinations of just four letters. Using a new technology called CRISPR, scientists can edit these sequences with speed, precision, and complexity. The potential therapeutic benefits are numerous, but genetic manipulation is not without risk. On a practical level, CRISPR could introduce harmful side effects into every cell of the human body. On a philosophical level, is genetic manipulation ethical if the intent isn’t to relieve suffering?
Scientists, including at least one of CRISPR’s inventors, are aware of these risks. That’s why some are calling for a moratorium on editing so-called “germ line” cells that give rise to subsequent generations. Yet the fact remains that CRISPR could improve and even save lives today. For example, editing the human genome could correct genetic defects such as Tay Sachs or cystic fibrosis. CRISPR could also support the development of therapies that prevent or cure Alzheimer’s, HIV, and cancer.
What About the Risks?
The range of therapeutic applications is significant, but so are the risks that science could do serious harm. Though our knowledge of the human genome continues to grow, our grip on complex genetic traits is still tenuous. Some of CRISPR’s defenders minimize this fact, and note that just as it’s possible to remove unwanted genetic code, it’s also possible to add that code back in. This, of course, implies that removing the code in the first place won’t have unintended consequences.
By setting limits on CRISPR, can science optimize the benefits and minimize the risks of genetic manipulation? After all, humans already use biotechnology to develop disease-resistant crops. So why isn’t it ethical to “create” disease-resistant children, too, by enhancing their genetic code? But is it also ethical to engineer offspring who are smarter, taller, and stronger than their forebears? How about choosing behavioral traits such as extroversion?
Today’s healthcare providers probably won’t need to have these conversations with their patients. Tomorrow’s medical professionals, however, may find that discussions about genetic manipulation involve more than just therapeutic options.
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