Bioethics Blogs

Five reasons we should embrace gene-editing research on human embryos

Future people would be grateful if their disease is cured, rather than being replaced by a different healthier or non-disabled person. sabianmaggy/Flickr, CC BY-SA

Scientists from around the world are meeting in Washington this week to debate how best to proceed with research into gene-editing technology.

Gene editing is a new precise form of genetic engineering. It uses enzymes from bacteria to locate genes within DNA and delete or replace them. In early 2015, Chinese scientists used it to modify human embryos as a first step towards preventing the genetic transmission of a blood disease.

Many people, including scientists, are worried about creating genetically modified humans. They’re worried about numerous things: genetic mistakes being passed on to the next generation; the creation of designer babies who are more intelligent, more beautiful or more athletic; and the possibility of causing severe growth abnormalities or cancer.

While these are valid concerns, they don’t justify a ban on research. Indeed, such research is a moral imperative for five reasons.

1. Curing genetic diseases

Gene editing could be used to cure genetic diseases such cystic fibrosis or thalassaemia (the blood disease that the Chinese researchers were working to eliminate). At present, there are no cures for such diseases.

Detractors say selection of healthy embryos or fetuses via genetic testing is preferable. But such genetic tests require abortion or embryo destruction, which is also objectionable to some people.

Gene-edited embryonic stem cell lines that cause or protect against disease could help us understand the origins of disease.
Image Editor/Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND

What’s more, genetic selection doesn’t benefit patients – it’s not a cure.

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.