Jennifer Doudna, who co-invented a gene editing technology that could transform how numerous genetic conditions are treated, says the process not only raises many hopes, but also brings concerns about "designer babies."
That technology, called CRISPR Cas9, has been used successfully to meticulously change specific genetic traits in multiple species, including monkeys, mice and certain plants.
Doudna and other scientists have said CRISPR Cas9 can revolutionize the fight against genetic disease in humans. But she has also warned that its wide-ranging capacity to alter genes will inevitably lead to various ethical dilemmas about a range of issues — including the eventual prospect of "CRISPR babies," or so-called designer humans pre-selected to have certain traits even before they are born.
What are these ethical dilemmas that could potentially be presented when we get to that point?
Doudna: There really are three areas that I think about.
One is the human embryo editing. We could call it germline editing. It basically just means making changes that are heritable in DNA in humans, that can be inherited by future generations. And just to be clear, that's distinct from the idea of using gene editing in an adult, or a patient, in cells that are not part of the germline (in which affected genes are) not eggs or sperm, so the changes to DNA would not be passed to future generations. And I think most people feel that that kind of (non-germline) application is really not ethically fraught. It's something that would affect one person and it needs to be treated as one would treat any other kind of therapeutic for safety and effectiveness, but doesn't affect future generations.
(The second ethics question) is applying the CRISPR Cas9 technology in agriculture. And that raises the whole question of how do we define genetically modified organisms, or GMOS. That (has) led to a really fascinating ongoing debate/discussion in many countries about how we define GMOs and (when) CRISPR Cas9 (is) used in plants, does that lead to plants that we would consider ... GMO.
I think the third area of (ethical) application is something called gene drive. And that simply means using this technology in a way that drives a genetic trait very quickly through a population, for example a population of insects like mosquitoes that would lead to, for example, either preventing mosquitoes from being able to transmit disease or even prevent mosquitoes from being able to reproduce. Again there are pros and cons. This could have an incredibly positive impact on human health if we could prevent mosquito-borne diseases from being spread, like Dengue virus, Zika, etc. But it also raises the possibility of unintended environmental consequences and how do we control something like that once it's unleashed.