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Our Assembly-Line Future?

Photo source Alana Escoto | CC BY 2.0

Human civilization has taken an important turn with the publication of a new report by the Nuffield Council, the semi-official bioethics agency of the United Kingdom. The document, two years in preparation, gives the go-ahead to genetically engineer human beings at the embryonic stages of development. The report stated: “There is potential for heritable genome editing interventions to be used at some point in the future in assisted human reproduction, as a means for people to secure certain characteristics in their children.” If history is a guide, the U.S. will not lag far behind the U.K. in following this dangerous path.

The U.K. pioneered human genetic engineering by approving, earlier this year, a technique to construct embryos using parts of the eggs of two different women, along with a man’s sperm, to create “three-person embryos.” Though deceptively promoted as “mitochondrial transfer,” the procedure really involves transferring around 20 thousand genes from a woman with impaired mitochondria into another woman’s egg. The accurate “three-person” designation was only widely used in the scientific literature after the procedure became legal. Similar misrepresentations of the technicalities are contained in the Nuffield recommendations.

Aldous Huxley’s dystopian novel, Brave New World, recounted the dire social consequences of purposefully fashioning humans with different biological endowments. His method of choice was in vitro fertilization, first demonstrated in animals in the 1930s, but only performed successfully in humans with the birth of Louise Brown (also in the U.K.) in 1978. By putting certain enriching or toxic substances in the culture medium, “superior” or “inferior” human specimens could be produced, according to society’s needs.

Now, due to the revolution in molecular genetics that has taken place since Huxley’s time, would-be embryo improvers have at their disposal the CRISPR-Cas9 DNA manipulation system. Though this technique has been touted for its accuracy, an article published in the journal Nature Biotechnology the same day as the Nuffield report bore the title ”Repair of double-stranded breaks induced by CRISPR-Cas9 leads to large deletions and complex rearrangements.” Notwithstanding this, and earlier indications along the same lines, the Nuffield Council is optimistic that gene engineers will eventually have the technical means to do what they intend, that is make taller, smarter and more beautiful people.

In this view, the main problem will be to make sure that the benefits are distributed fairly, and that no one is discriminated against for being a product of genetic experimentation. Further, because the modifications are genetic, they will generally be heritable. But Nuffield has considered that as well. They assert that “the potential use of genome editing to influence the characteristics of future generations is not unacceptable in itself.”

Several things stand in the way of this eugenic (that is, better people though better genes) future, some of which are deal-breakers sufficient to make any reasonable person repelled by the prospect of Nuffield World. To begin with, every genetically manipulated embryo will be a costly experiment involving chancy interventions into a novel genome (the kind of genome all humans, up to the present, have had). But the more we learn about genes the more we recognize that the proteins they encode (the basis of their functioning) behave differently in different individuals, and in different organs in the same individual. Whether or not the manipulation worked can only be tested by embryo biopsy when it might be too late. Engineering is not the appropriate metaphor for these forays into the unknown, and no one would (or at least should) want children made in this way.

What is the alternative? Some scientists, based on experiments with mice, suggest that the way to control outcomes in humans is to use prototype genomes with known properties, ones that can be obtained by turning the body cells of an established individual (a relative, a sick child, or a verified donor) into stem cells, or eggs and sperm, and using those cells or gametes to generate GM embryos. Replicate embryos can then be tested to see, insofar as possible, if the manipulation “took” and whether it “works.” The successful ones could be implanted and brought to term.

This factory-style method for producing humans would remove some, but not all, of the risks of genetic engineering. There are immense profits to made from foisting high-tech boondoggles like genetically modified foods on a scientifically naïve public, but the drive to industrialize the production of people would come as well from the purported rational framing of scientific medicine. And although it is clear that consumerism and parental ambition will be readily harnessed to the new genetics in capitalist societies, by all reports the manipulation of human embryos is even more advanced in China (though with less bioethical pondering) than in the West. The biological and social hazards of the GMO human enterprise extend beyond political arrangements and should be stopped in its tracks.

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Stuart A. Newman, Ph.D. is a professor of cell biology and anatomy at New York Medical College, and co-author (with Tina Stevens) of Biotech Juggernaut: Hope, Hype, and Hidden Agendas of Entrepreneurial Bioscience (Routledge, forthcoming 2019).

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