An article in the New York Times last week suggests that the genetic engineering of humans is only just around the corner. A recently developed gene editing tool known as CRISPR/Cas9 has finally made it possible to easily and accurately make genetic alterations to human cells, which could make it possible (according to the Times story) “to cure genetic diseases, but also to enhance qualities like beauty or intelligence.” Moreover, the tool could be used to alter germline cells (that is, eggs, sperm, and any cell that gives rise to them), which would mean that the alterations were encoded permanently in the human population, generation after generation. This prospect has motivated a group of prominent genetic scientists and bioethicists to propose a professional, self-imposed moratorium on any attempt to make clinical use of tools for editing human germline cells. Another group, whose members have helped develop an alternative gene editing tool (zinc-finger nucleases), has proposed an even broader moratorium, one that would proscribe research into germline modification as well as clinical applications.
The moratorium is a good idea, and in fact similar pauses should probably be considered for some other potential applications. CRISPR/Cas9 is both less powerful and more powerful than the Times story suggests: it does not have us right on the doorstep of editing the human genome, but it may well have us on the doorstep of some other very significant forms of genetic engineering.
There have always been two big challenges confronting anyone who wants to edit the human genome: making the genetic changes correctly (getting them into cells and then into the genome at the right location) and making the correct genetic changes (actually achieving the results without accidentally creating new problems).
The views, opinions and positions expressed by these authors and blogs are theirs and do not necessarily represent that of the Bioethics Research Library and Kennedy Institute of Ethics or Georgetown University.