Genetically engineered embryos: Is this a reality?

May 16, 2019 by Yerim Kim


The world was shaken up when the news broke out that a Chinese scientist, He Jiankui, successfully genetically modified three babies. Two genetically engineered twins were born recently, and a third baby is on its way. According to the BBC, Professor He deleted key genes associated with HIV (Human Immunodeficiency Virus) receptors in the body. Professor He claimed that his actions were ethical, because the genetically modified baby’s father has AIDS (Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome) and there was thus a risk that the child could also be infected by HIV. Chinese officials, on the other hand, are currently saying that Professor He violated state laws for fame. According to UNESCO, Germline gene editing is banned in all countries. Currently, we do not know the baby’s status and researchers do not fully understand  the real-life consequences of silencing the HIV receptor genes. This event has generated ethical concerns for some, regarding genetically modified embryos.

Professor He used CRISPR-Cas9 technology to genetically engineer the embryos. This technology, which is short for “Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats CRISPR-associated protein 9,” is capable of modifying the genome of an individual. According to the National Institute of Health, scientists can manipulate the genome by deleting, adding or modifying specific genes within the genome.

CRISPR-Cas 9 technology is mainly used to study genetic diseases and to find possible therapeutic treatments. According to the National Institute of Health, most research comprises of gene modification to somatic cells, which only affect a certain area of the body. Scientists usually do not edit germline genes, because these genes could be passed onto future generations. In fact, in most countries, it is illegal to manipulate germline cells, because of the ethical problems that it brings forth. Genetic engineering in embryos is a contentious topic, in part because it is becoming closer to a common reality day by day.

Scientists have developed the technology needed to possibly alter embryonic genes. According to Professor John Harris of the University of Manchester, using CRISPR-Cas9 to eliminate genes associated with genetic diseases could decrease people’s suffering. However, there are also many criticisms to genetic engineering. One argument is that manipulating genes is unnatural. A second objection is that future generations produced by genetically engineered embryos, or that have had genes passed down to them, did not consent to the changes being made. Third, although cutting out genes that encode genetic diseases (such as cystic fibrosis and sickle cell anemia) could eliminate the disease altogether, and this could in turn prevent illnesses and create preventative gene therapies, a problem still remains. This has to do with editing genes other than those related to genetic diseases. The ethical concerns arise when these alternative possibilities are considered - for example,  parents could specifically choose to alter genes to make their children physically and intellectually better. Theoretically, genetic modification could be used to alter an embryo’s genome to include specific genes that would make children taller and further their intellectual development. Thus, CRISPR-Cas9 could be used to create ‘designer babies.’

Then, the larger problem of accessibility comes into question. Will there be an economic divide, and will there be genetic discrimination? Currently, gene editing techniques are very pricy and only the affluent are able to afford it.

Another major ethical concern lies in how we would distinguish disorders from enhancements. For example, CRISPR-Cas 9 can edit genes responsible for a growth hormone deficiency, so that affected individuals are able to produce more growth hormone (GH). However, what if people wanted to use it to simply enhance their height? There is a blur between what is medically necessary and what individuals would desire to use for their own enhancement.

Finally, according to Stanford, there are ecological consequences to CRISPR-Cas 9 gene editing. It can be used to edit the germline cells of animals, which will alter their genomic sequence forever. The genes will be passed down from generation to generation. The addition or deletion of genes can cause ramifications that scientists could not see beforehand, leading to irreparable damage to the ecosystem.

CRISPR-Cas 9 technology could be used to benefit our society, but the possibility of its wrongful application sparks ethical and moral dilemmas. Moreover, Professor He’s immoral use of this technology might jeopardize its possible future usage in therapeutic and diagnostic tools.

The UIC Scribe was founded in 2006 as the official student-run newsmagazine of Underwood International College. It celebrates diversity of thinking, excellence in writing, and the freedom of self-expression.