Scientists Are About to Decide When to Stop Editing the Perfect Human

frozen human shape
When Do You Stop Editing the Perfect Human?Getty Images
  • Now that human genome editing is real, the ethical questions are endless.

  • A three-day summit in London in March will focus on the ethical quandaries of gene editing in pursuit of the perfect human.

  • The science of genome editing is moving faster than any regulations around it.

One of the first talks at the planned Third International Summit on Human Genome Editing in March is called, “Hopes and fears for human genome editing.” The panel is scheduled to last just 90 minutes—almost certainly not enough time to set the tone for a three-day event focusing on the ethical questions surrounding the pursuit of the perfect human.

In the most recent summit, which occurred in 2018 in Beijing, a scientist named He Jiankui shocked the world by unveiling he altered the genetics of three girls when they were just embryos. He was jailed by the Chinese government for three years for his unethical practices, but since that time, the technology of genome editing has only progressed. (In 2020, scientists were awarded the 2020 Nobel Prize in chemistry for creating “genetic scissors: a tool for rewriting the code of life.”)

“Genome editing has enormous power to benefit people,” Robin Lovell-Badge, organizer of the London event, tells The Guardian, “but we should be transparent about how it is being tried and tested before the technology is put into practice.”

The “genetic scissors” technique, which is now called CRISPR, can remove strands of DNA. In the next wave of possibilities, genome editing sits at the forefront of fighting diseases before they can impact a human, while introducing a near limitless list of reasons to modify genes for future hopes and dreams.

Lovell-Badge tells The Guardian the reasons go beyond ridding hereditary diseases and could include everything from modifying liver enzymes to remove chemical warfare toxins from bodies, to making changes to be more resistant to biological weapons, to altering humans to see in the infrared or ultraviolet range. These are just a few examples for military purposes.

There’s also not a clear understanding of the physical risks (think: increased risks of cancer), not to mention the potential psychological risks. Some scientists believe in a potential to improve human health. Others worry about the unknown and untold dangers involved in rearranging a person’s genome.

“This shows why,” Lovel-Badge says, “it is so important that we take this technology forward carefully.”

The Internal Summit on Human Genome Editing kicks off on March 6.

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