Nobel Prize of Chemistry inflames the ethical debates for genetic modification of humans
The winner of 2020 Nobel Prize of Chemistry was announced at the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences on October 7th. The co-laureates were two female scientists Emmanuel Charpentier and Jennifer A. Doudna for their discovery of CRISPR9/Cas9 genetic scissors. Although the discovery was a happy accident for Charpentier, she noticed the potential and initiated her collaboration with Doudna to unlock the possibilities. Today, their discovery can be used to create value in a variety of areas, while the extent of the capabilities of this powerful tool is expected to inflame ethical debates.
The genetic scissors are not a new thing, they have been known and used for some time on experiments with generally bacteria DNAs. What makes Charpentier and Doudna’s discovery more worthy of consideration is that allowing a more precise operation on nuclear molecules of the cell. Reportedly, the scientists thought that they were about to find a new form of an antibiotic. Instead, they have found a tool which could alter science. Basic motivation of usage of this tool is expected to provide solutions for droughts, famine, cancer cells etc. With CRISPR9/cas9, the scientists can modify the genes of plants to have features which could enable them to be more resistant to the heat, cold and require less water and food from the earth. Moreover, the tool can be used to isolate and terminate the cancerous gene sequences by replacing the mutation with a normal healthy code. However, these examples prove that the usage of this tool can very well be directed into some morally gray areas. At this point, the discovery connects to long lasting science fiction fears.
1997 production dystopian movie GATTACA, displays all the fear about humans taking control of the natural selection and resulting with non-modified people becoming an inferior sub-species which are denied many rights. Now with the discovery of CRISPR9/cas9 genetic scissors, the scenario of genetically handpicked babies is a feasible future. In theory, scientists can replace unwanted autosomal genes with any preference, like they do with the cancerous cells. They can also improve their muscle portion, health and maybe even the intelligence. In most of the world, experimenting with a human fetus is illegal. These areas are so controversial, in some countries like China doctors are not even allowed to tell the sex of the fetus to avoid sex selective abortions. While this is the case, fear of misuse of genetic scissors and expecting strong regulations is only natural.
One might think that, the existing laws and regulations would be enough to control unsanctioned usage of genetic modification. If it was only about the genetically modified food and large spectrum antibiotics, it would be fine. However, the aim is to cure chronic genetic based diseases like diabetes, high blood pressure and inheritable cancers. These kind of diseases not only drain the health expenditure funds but also lower the life quality of the patients. Hence, both governments and the patients would be willing to take the risks. And the problem is, human genetic modification is more of an untapped water which creates the gray areas of utilization for CRISPR9/cas9.
Let’s assume the legislations were passed to restrict any unnecessary preference practices, allowing the scientists to use genetic scissors only to fix genetic abnormalities. What will be categorized as abnormality? Will the down syndrome babies be genetically modified? Are the scientists going to be allowed to experiment on humans to see the extend of capabilities of genetic scissors?
While the debates seem like to be continued for some time, the well deservedness of Nobel Prize cannot be denied. The collaborative work of Emmanuelle Charpentier and Jennifer Doudna has already expanded the horizons for science since 2012. Nonetheless, will they ever be able to rewrite the life itself, time will tell.