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Word processing for mankind

In the third of five articles short-listed for the ICR's Mel Greaves Science Writing Prize 2015, Kevin Litchfield discusses the potential consequences of cutting-edge genetics research.

Imagine taking a library full of thousands of books, and changing one letter, of one word, on one page of one book. An inconsequential event surely, that even the most eagle-eyed librarian would ignore? But what if this library was to become a template for all others across the world, with all books copied identically from this one source? And what if changing the one letter had the risk of unintended consequences? Would this make the change more serious, what if one of Shakespeare's finest was forever lost?

This is the dilemma currently undergoing ferocious scientific and moral debate. But the books aren't in a library; they are the genes inside every cell in your body. This is the long standing controversy of embryonic genetic editing, changing the DNA code while a human embryo is one cell small. Talk of designer babies is of course nothing new, but this topic is now hurtling back as a major quandary for scientists worldwide. The main thing fuelling this furnace of debate is a game-changer in the scientific toolbox, the emergence of a new technique called CRISPR.

This is a powerful tool able to change single letters of DNA, at any exact point in the genetic code. Cue visions of megalomaniac scientists playing God with genetics, treating our DNA like letters in a word processor, chopping and changing at will. The other catalyst for this debate is research recently reported in Asia, where controversial and secret experiments are finally coming to light.

What have they done? Well nothing that wasn't really suspected. A bit like a troublesome teenager: their exploits are neither a surprise nor a pleasure to hear. They have tested the CRISPR technique on unviable and surplus human embryos from IVF, trying to cure a debilitating genetic blood condition. So the motivations may be pure, and their main conclusion is in fact that the technique is currently too dangerous to use. So is this a storm in a teacup, scaremongering gone too far? Or have deep ethical lines been crossed, that will change humanity forevermore?

Let's consider a few facts.

Although the entire sequence of human DNA spans three billion letters in length, a single letter change can have profound effects. Take the well-known BRCA genes, where a one letter mutation can result in an 85% lifetime risk of breast cancer, and >50% ovarian cancer risk to boot. Cystic fibrosis, Huntingdon’s disease and sickle cell anaemia are also examples of single-gene disorders, caused directly by a single defect. These are devastating and deadly diseases: consider cystic fibrosis, thick mucus blocking a poor child’s lungs, endless physiotherapy sessions and antibiotics to inhale, a life expectancy of 41. Try telling any parent or child suffering this fate that there are techniques that could prevent it, but they have been ignored.

When it comes to the risks however there are indeed some important points to mention, two in particular. The first is about the unknown consequences of tinkering with something that we don’t really understand. Changing the code of an embryo affects every cell in that person, and can also be passed down to their children and all future generations to come. So an unintended mistake could have far reaching implications, permanently altering the very template of life. The second major risk is the 'slippery slope' argument, that techniques pioneered for medical treatment will be ripe for misuse. Recent history bears the painful scars of eugenics, and a new era of 'designer humanity' surely is a moral black-hole that must be avoided at all costs.

So it is no shock the recent results from Asia have grabbed a lot of attention. What is surprising however is the reaction from some parts of the US, with leading journal Nature calling for an immediate suspension on this research worldwide. This is somewhat ironic, as the procedures used in Asia are still legal in the US, and at least one US genetics centre is also doing the same work in secret, according to MIT Technology Review.

For me there are indeed deep moral challenges of going down this road, which need broad and inclusive debate across science and beyond. But is the right approach a knee-jerk reaction and for this research to be immediately banned? Take IVF as an example, where original opponents warned it would end family life as we know it, replacing it with laboratory based breeding à la Brave New World.

So history tells us the warnings can be overblown, but should not be ignored. In my opinion this is less a question of whether to do this, but instead a discussion on safety and control. Its clear laboratories across the world will be pioneering this work; do we really believe they can be made to stop? So the priority for now should be establishing international collaboration on these topics, so initial lab testing is safe and ethical. Attempting to ban the work will just push it further into the shadows and also grossly exaggerates the current risks. Although controversial, the Chinese research has shown these techniques are in their infancy, and very far from working and actual medical use.

Alas, for now this debate remains largely theoretical: scientists are not about to start word processing our DNA. But the genie is well and truly out of the bottle, the lid blown off Pandora’s Box. Now it’s happened there are powerful and emotive questions to be addressed, we should all engage in this debate. For if we are not careful it could be the books inside our own genetic library that are at stake; the works of art that define us and make us great. These should be preserved and protected at all costs, changed only to remove the most deadly of errors, in a way that is completely safe.

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