Biotechnology, Ethics and CRISPR: A Panacea or Pandora’s Box?

Ed. Note: This post by Benjamin Vanlalvena is a part of the TLF Editorial Board Test 2016.

Change is inevitable. Through technology, humans have brought about changes not only in the environment but also within themselves. Whether these changes are ‘good’ or ‘bad’, the fact is that we have achieved things and gone to places we would never have dreamed of.

These changes have given us more control over how we live and how we affect and are affected by the environment.

What is it and how does it affect us?

CRISPR stands for Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats. It is a tool/technique to allow for gene-editing. Genetic engineering and editing is not something new, and we’ve genetically modified mice, fish, pigs, tomatoes, etc. CRISPR is significant because it is much more precise, which makes it much more cheap and efficient. Biotechnology has played a huge part in the betterment of humankind through development of various vaccines and medicines and CRISPR could also play a role in the same and be quite beneficial.

According to the WHO, roughly 438,000 deaths were caused by malaria in 2015 alone, and CRISPR has been seen as a tool that could potentially eradicate not only malaria but yellow fever, zika virus, etc. Malaria is one of the many diseases we could prevent by editing genes in organisms; if research becomes fruitful, various congenital disabilities could also be prevented.

As of now, scientists from the United States and China have been given permission to conduct trials on humans which could be a cure for cancer.

The ethical dilemma

The issue with gene-editing and changing the DNA of a species is that once we go through with it, there’s no turning back. The side-effects might be noticeable only after decades, however, should we restrict ourselves and allow tens of thousands of people to die because of something that could happen? There is no clear answer. Biotechnology and ethics have troubled us for a long time. Is it moral to let a foetus if you know it will suffer from a chronic or terminal illness? Should we allow euthanasia for someone who is in extreme pain? The question of being ‘pro-choice’ or ‘pro-life’ (abortion) continues to plague us. Likewise, editing of genes through CRISPR or some other means that might be developed in the future is yet to be unanswered. Regardless of what the consequence may be, we can be assured that change is inevitable, whether we like it or not, it is open in the market and no matter how we react to it, whether we ban it or regulate it, research would go on.

We’ve seen enough movies to think about the potential dangers that could arise though possibly not as extreme (“I am Legend” anyone?). When we think of gene-editing we need not restrict ourselves to simply curing of disease but we could start to have ‘improvements’ in the human body. This begs then begs the question, does it not lead to further discrimination or disparity between people? Scientists or doctors would be incentivised to provide better services to persons with deeper pockets, however Kurzgesagt,a Youtube channel claims that such a disparity is already present and possibly would always be present. Maybe it’s better to have differences as long as the worst harm suffered is not as bad as earlier was? Maybe it would be better to have some people excel at things and other not excelling as long as those worst off are not suffering from preventable harm; though attempts should be made and continued to be made to reduce the gap differences, should we prevent ourselves from any form of advancement simply because we wouldn’t be able to have what those who are better off have?

Such questions are pertinent because though the lens with which we look at gene-editing right now might be limited to curing of diseases; the idea of a designer baby is not something people haven’t thought of. However, as with all forms of scientific advancement, we must ask ourselves, for we are at the threshold of a new era in human history. Change might not be immediate, but it is certainly inevitable. What does the future hold for us, will humanity evolve and move forward or will we use CRISPR to doom ourselves further?

 

For more information, watch:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UfA_jAKV29g, CRISPR: A Gene-editing superpower, SciShow

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jAhjPd4uNFY, Genetic Engineering Will Change Everything Forever – CRISPR, Kurzgesagt – In a Nutshell

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TnzcwTyr6cE, How To Eradicate One Of Our Deadliest Enemies – Gene Drive & Malaria, Kurzgesagt – In a Nutshell

http://www.livescience.com/53015-when-is-gene-editing-dangerous.html, LiveScience.

 

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