Is Genetic Enhancement a Dangerous New Tool or Just Science Being Science?

Tess Johnson

The first genetically edited children were born in China in late 2018. Twins Lulu and Nana had a particular gene – known as CCR5 – modified during embryonic development. The aim was to make them (and their descendants) resistant to HIV. By some definitions, this would be an example of human enhancement.

Although there is still a long way to go before the technology is safe, this example has shown it’s possible to edit genes that will continue being inherited by genetic offspring for generations. However, we don’t yet know what effect these genetic changes will have on the overall health of the twins throughout life. Potential unintended changes to other genes is a grave concern which is limiting our use of gene editing technology at the moment – but this limit won’t always be present.

As we increasingly become less limited by what is scientifically achievable in the realm of gene editing for enhancement, we rely more heavily on ethical – rather than practical – limits to our actions. In fact, the case of Lulu and Nana might never have happened if both scientific and ethical limits had been more firmly established and enforced.

But in order to decide these limits, the expert community needs one important contribution: public opinion. Without the voice of the people, regulations are unlikely to be followed. In a worst case scenario, a lack of agreed upon regulations could mean the emergence of dangerous black markets for genetic enhancements. These come with safety and equity issues. In the meantime, experts have called for a temporary international ban on the use of gene editing technologies until a broad societal consensus has been established.

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