Genetic modification: a step too far in science?

On December 30th of 2019, a Chinese scientist by the name of He Jianku was sentenced to three years in prison by a court in China. This was due to his experimentation and genetic modification on twin babies Lulu and Nana, who were revealed to the world in November of 2018.

The Chinese government convicted him of being involved in “illegal medical practice” and along with the prison sentence, he was fined for a total of £328,000. Although he defended the ethical ramifications of the work he had done, He Jianku and his two collaborators pleaded guilty.

The scientist was condemned on a global scale when he first announced the existence of the twins and the results of his experiments in November of 2018. When speaking about the ethical dilemma behind his research, he deferred by saying “I understand my work will be controversial, but I believe families need this technology and I’m willing to take criticism for them.” For his experiments, he received a lot of backlash from the science community and the Chinese government arrested him, taking the babies in for medical observation.

He Jianku said that his ultimate goal for the experiments was to be able to genetically modify the coding in the twins’ DNA to make them immune to HIV; and he said he could do so with the use of a gene-editing procedure known as CRISPR-CAS9. By using this procedure, he mutated a specific gene called CCR5 found in DNA to prevent the HIV virus from invading the cell.

However, many scientific sources have claimed that the gene editing technology isn’t ready to be used for reproductive purposes as of yet and that Jianku’s actions were risky and dangerous.

Genetic modification has always been a sore topic in political and scientific circles. A lot of this has to do with drawing a clear ethical line when it comes to genetic editing. There is a fear in the science community that having the technology to genetically modify embryos, and utilizing that technology, will lead to the eradication and cure of genetic diseases; and lay the groundwork for the possibility of “designer babies”.

On one hand, there are scientists who argue that using genetic modification to cure genetic diseases could allow for a better chance at life for those who would otherwise have to live with those conditions. But there is also the opinion that once human genetic modification begins, drawing the line of what is and isn’t acceptable will become very difficult, and with it comes the risk of the process being taken too far and ethical boundaries being breached.

As well as further ostracizing groups who are in the minority due to their genetic disposition, this technology could also lead to the possibility of parents choosing their fetus’ traits and characteristics before they are even born. Thereby, this can lead to to the development of designer babies, and further hierarchical structures in society, where a certain trait or characteristics becomes increasingly dominant and considered better than others.

Being misused as such, this technology can cause a new elitist distinction to be made in socioeconomic circles between people who can afford “designer babies” and those who cannot, furthering the debate of whether genetic modification in human beings can be considered morally justified in light of what is to come.

Image: via commons.wikimedia.org

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