Scissor hands: A new era of genetics
The Nobel Prize for chemistry signals the ushering in of a “new epoch”. The CRISPR/Cas9 ‘genetic scissors’, discovered by Emmanuelle Charpentier and Jennifer A. Doudna, indeed have the potential of vast medical applications, from curing genetic diseases, detecting and treating cancers and HIV by blocking replication in human cells, bioengineering new crops and plants, eliminating malaria, to editing DNA in live human embryos. But as scientists embark on this “new epoch” of genetic engineering, past challenges — not only medical but also ethical — must serve as a warning. Any initiative to eradicate flaws in the physiological form must recall the grievous wrongs perpetrated by government-sponsored eugenics programmes in the United States of America, Canada and, most significantly, Germany. From 1909-1979, around 20,000 sterilizations took place in California’s state mental institutions under the guise of protecting society from the offspring of people with mental illness. This perverse obsession to purge imperfection was not very different from the Nazi regime’s experiments to create a ‘pure race’. Prisoners in concentration camps were forced to undergo horrific medical tests to realize this grand vision. The question of consent was, of course, sacrificed. The temptation of playing god for future generations, that too without the knowledge of long-term consequences, has proved to be irresistible to certain regimes.
Yet there is also a strong case to not delay gene research given the suffering and death brought about by a number of single-gene disorders. Cystic fibrosis and Huntington’s disease can be cited as two examples. The challenge, therefore, is to find the right balance between medicine and ethics. Germany, it seems, has found a way by taking lessons from the past. Last year, a German Ethics Council, while admitting the benefits of gene editing, called for a moratorium on gene-edited IVF embryos until such a point that suitable guidelines can be established, including international monitoring procedures and governance structures. More than 40 countries have passed similar laws against human germline editing. Some others, such as the US, are trying to regulate covert research by controlling the purse strings. But regulatory mechanisms have their own limitations. Scientific discoveries evolve faster than progressive legislation; human gene editing is, therefore, unlikely to remain contained by regulatory limits. Its adoption, goaded by a market hungry for the wonders of eugenics, would exacerbate discrimination and conflict. Genetic heritage is a public resource. Neither science nor the State has the right to tweak it without representative consultation.