That uneasy nether-realm where genes and ethics meet up with possibly mad scientists was exposed again this week as China announced they were “editing” the genes of human embryos.
Immediately and convincingly, scientific leaders from the U.S. stepped up to declare this to be a bad idea and even a very bad idea—though not because they were not curious about what experimentation could reveal. Actually I suspect they are itching to do the same sort of work just to see what happens—a basic and ubiquitous childlike curiosity resides at the core of any decent scientist. Rather they, like any watcher of Jurassic Park, are worried about the law of unintended consequences. What if something goes wrong and we make a 40-foot-tall linebacker who eats people and ozone for lunch?
The entire enterprise is extremely sci-fi still, easily decades away from creating a living disaster. The work itself is the sort of activity one expects at the start of a long scientific path of inquiry. Using already doomed (“defective”) frozen embryos, the Chinese scientists asked the question whether an edit in one gene early in the assembly-line replication called mitosis, when the embryo goes from four or eight or 16 cells to thousands then millions, will result in stamping each downstream gene with the same edit.
Since the peculiar word “edit” has entered the conversation—it might be easier to place the situation into book editor terms: the question is whether a red “X” placed after the word “the” made in an author’s first preliminary notes of a book (a book that takes many subsequent years to complete) will result in the same red “X” showing up after “the” the thousand and one times the word appears in the finished book.
(Author’s question: Does the fact that all analogies using editors as the “normal” don’t quite work mean that editors are wildly unlike any other profession and therefore literally incomparable? Or that they are an evolutionary dead-end with no capacity to adapt, an insect that inexplicably glows in the daytime.)
Thankfully and not surprisingly the Chinese scientists have failed as intrusive editors. Of the embryos that went ahead and divided and did their stuff, none propagated the edit. Which is not a surprise to those who watched Dolly the sheep arise from a cloned parentage almost 20 years ago. She was the only sheep to survive to adulthood out of 277 embryo attempts and lived a shortened and infirm (though extremely cute) life perhaps related to the mechanics of cloning. The Scottish team behind the work was sufficiently discouraged that in 2007, they gave up, saying the then-most-modern techniques could not succeed.
Though the story of cloning doesn’t quite end there—a Chinese team seems to have perfected cloning pigs and is said to use the cloned herd to test medicines—though few stories have appeared in recent years about the cloned pigpen denizens. The program is run by Beijing Genomics Institute, not affiliated with the current embryo editing work.
Given the hyper-reaction to the first tiny step forward in the world of human gene editing, this week’s mini-crisis in the future of the species is a reassuring sign that people are watching and taking the ethical implications of this brand of scientific work quite seriously. Which doesn’t mean publicized self-doubt will stop anyone—scientists and governments are known for cooperating till they aren’t and even then, only up to a point. Serious discussion by Nobel laureates in the West likely will do little to influence interested investigators in China or other countries less beholden to the U.S. and Europe. Indeed, I suspect there will be many more breathless stories in the years ahead as this scientific approach plays itself out from brouhaha to, as is likely, big dud.
But there is a larger more pressing concern raised by gene editing—one that has to do with the here and now: the impact this type of story can have on discussion of reproductive freedom. Any time a frozen embryo is used for something, anti-abortion champions are handed a moment to re-frame the painful debate on termination of pregnancy and the fate of fertilized human eggs.
We had the snowflake baby discussion during the Bush years, as well as the extremely disappointing stem cell debate where frozen eight and 16 cell zygotes were granted personhood, thereby stifling scientific progress in the name of protecting the vulnerable. By again focusing on scientific uses of frozen embryos, however doomed and however unrelated to human sentient life, the scientists in China indeed have unleashed a frightening monster—they have added even more emotion to already overheated pre-life versus pro-choice debate.