Layla Richards lay dying in hospice care. She was 14 weeks old. Frail. Tiny. A vicious form of leukemia was tearing her body apart.
Pushed to their last resources, Layla’s doctors decided upon an experimental treatment. Within four weeks she was in remission. Two years later the bouncing toddler now exudes health.
What changed? Layla is one of the first human beings to be given a radical new treatment- gene editing.
Science is manipulating the future. New therapies eradicate previously fatal ailments. “Designer” babies are no longer science fiction. Want your child to have your bright brown eyes and your partners muscular frame? Soon you might be able to assemble a child as easily as a piece of furniture.
“Dr. Waseem Qasim, a bearded, genial immunologist who specializes in immune system disorders in children, including cancers…had been working on a new type of leukemia treatment in which an anonymous donor’s white blood cells are engineered to recognize cancer cells, by tweaking their genes…The engineered cells form an arsenal of targeted cancer-killer cells that can be injected into anyone,” reports NewsWeek.
Qasim groundbreaking treatment saved Layla’s life.
Gene therapy is one of the most controversial subjects in modern medicine. NewsWeek writes “While research labs around the world are working on genetic cures to childhood and adult diseases, most have been wary of interfering with the DNA of a human embryo, fearful of unintended consequences for future generations.”
In 2016 the UK became the first country in the world to allow genetic modifications in embryos. The potential consequences are astonishing.
Bioethicists and religious leaders across the globe constitute the technique’s most vocal opponents. They fear that the technology will herald a grim future wherein human originality and creativity are stifled as parents design every aspect of their child before it’s born.
A recent report from the Nuffield Council on Bioethics found that gene editing demanded further scrutiny because the “scope for unforeseen consequences is considered to be great or editing is regarded as irreversible.”
Who you are is mostly determined by your genes. Your hair color, your taste in food, even personality traits like your propensity to be an alcoholic are decided by your DNA.
Gene editing allows us to allows to alter genetic mistakes before they manifest.
The potential extends far beyond merely curing disease. Gene modifications could correct every defect, fix every flaw.
Nearly four decades ago another baby girl changed human history. In 1978 Louise Brown was the first child born who had been created by in vitro fertilization.
Since that time research has sprinted forward.
In 1981, The New York Times reported that the procedure was considered “equivalent to abortion in the eyes of some opponents.”
Gene manipulation may be an actual fountain of youth, a way for human beings to extend their lives indefinitely.
Or it may wreck mankind by squelching our individuality as babies are created to cookie-cutter standards.
“[S] cientists around the world faced a moral dilemma concerning the definition of human life. When does a ball of cells become a fetus? Does an artificially created life form have rights? Should physical impairments like deafness be culled from our population?,” asks NewsWeek.
Critics worry about the long-term consequences of “playing god.” Will unforeseen side-effects pop up in Layla’s child? Her grandchild?
US officials are more wary about the potential of gene editing than their British counterparts.
“In February 2016, geneticist Kathy Niakan of the U.K.’s Francis Crick Institute became the first scientist in the world to receive a license to edit healthy human embryos for research,” reporters note.
Genetically-modified babies appeal to some and horrify others.
Conservative Party parliamentarian Jacob Rees-Mogg said: “In a country nervous about genetically modified crops, we are making the foolhardy move to genetically modified babies.”
Human beings have yet to figure out how to live together without occasionally breaking out into war. Are we really ready to start manipulating our own species?
Current US law bans federal funding for human embryo research, but officials are facing pressure to change the law.
“In April 2015, researchers in Guangzhou, China, announced they had conducted a CRISPR gene-modification experiment on defective human embryos, to edit the gene responsible for beta-thalassaemia, a potentially fatal blood disorder. It was a resounding failure, because the CRISPR method accidentally edited the wrong genes, which ended up irreversibly scrambling the embryo’s DNA,” writes NewsWeek.
The fiasco prompted a flurry of debates over the ethics of experimenting on embryo’s.
The future is murky. Man’s desire to extend his life will prevent gene editing research from dying despite valid ethical concerns.
The field could potentially alter the definition of what it means to be human. We’re playing with fire.
Genes could be edited inaccurately, irreparable class divisions could erupt as the rich introduced new genetic sequences into their offspring while the poor continued to procreate the “old-fashioned” way.
Until these thorny questions of morality are smoothed out, implanting altered embryos into a woman’s uterus is too risky.
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