Playing God: Dangers, ethical issues outweigh benefits for gene editing research

Let’s ‘play God.’

As of Feb. 1, Britain approved gene editing on human embryos.

There are many controversies surrounding gene editing. From a religious standpoint, it is seen as an attempt to create life as God does. Aside from religious beliefs, having the power to modify and create genes presents many concerns. One of these is the aftermath of the experiments. It is not guaranteed that there will be no consequences, which may be seen when the baby is born or even in future generations. Another major concern is the potential future of “designer babies.” Gene editing may lead to the option of altering genes to create smarter, better-looking babies.

Genetically modifying human embryos may produce positive results in terms of treating certain illnesses and diseases, but successes may be short-lived. For instance, viruses are constantly evolving. Instead of being a means to cure sickness, the application of this study may possibly lead to the onset of new, devastating epidemics.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention states the Influenza A virus, commonly known as the flu, undergoes two different types of transformations. The first is the “antigenic drift.” This transformation is gradual and happens through replication. The other is called the “antigenic shift.” This second transformation is a major change which results in a virus with a new combination of genes. In 2009, the Influenza A virus experienced an antigenic shift, which resulted in a pandemic. By creating genetically enhanced babies to fend off these viruses, the viruses, instead of being eradicated, may evolve to become stronger and more malicious.

There is also no guarantee that there won’t be other forms of genetic disorders. Down syndrome, for example, occurs when there are three, instead of two, copies of chromosome 21. This particular condition is congenital. Even if a child’s genes were modified before birth to prevent conditions such as Down syndrome, there is a possibility that a new genetic condition may arise due to natural mutations in future generations.

Considering the risks and ethical issues, many people are against experimentation on genetic engineering, especially when it involves the human genome. What many people forget, however, is the fact that gene modifcations have already been effective since the 1900s, and are necessities in our lives today.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the poliovirus infected 13,000-20,000 people annually before the vaccine was created. In the article “Embryonic Stem Cell Research-Old Controversy; New Debate,” Rachel Gold explains that the polio vaccine was developed from experiments on human fetal kidney cells. This discovery has radically reduced the contraction of this virus and has even made it possible to initiate its eradication. The polio vaccine isn’t the only one. Vaccines, such as for the Influenza virus and Human Papillomavirus would not be accessible today if not for genetic research and engineering.

Kathy Niakan, a researcher from London, proposed gene editing on human embryos, which was illegal in the UK before it was accepted on Feb. 1. Niakan, along with other scientists, aims to utilize the experimentation for purposes of better understanding the human genome and potentially correcting genetic defects. Although the prospects of finding a cure to cancer sounds appealing, these experimentations must be regulated in order to prevent genetically modified babies. Aside from studying genetic defects, gene editing could lead to the temptations of creating ‘super babies.’ Scientists have the ability to experiment with genes that code for physical appearances as well as defects. If these studies are implemented on embryos in the womb, it may lead to more wants rather than needs. Parents might want to alter the height of their baby boy or choose “prettier” features for their baby girl. The possibilities are endless.

Gene editing is research that was bound to happen, regardless of the controversies. It is research that is necessary and vital to understanding the complexities of human nature, and it is a means of adaptation to the constantly evolving environment that we live in.

For now, Britain’s experimented embryos will not be transferred to women. Although there have been new discoveries of vaccines and treatments through genetic research, there should be strict regulations and supervision when genetically engineering human embryos.