Monday, April 27, 2015

Biotech landmark: the first genetically modified human embryo

When talking transhumanism, I often neglect...and foolishly so...the role biotechnology plays.

I'm all about the hardware aspects of transhumanism it seems, but the fact is, much will result from modifying what we already have. In a world's first, major steps towards that end have occurred. Scientists in China have modified a human embryo.

And a lot of people are uncomfortable.

The results were first published last week in the journal, Protein&Cell. Researchers used a gene editor to replace the gene responsible for the fatal blood disorder known as beta-thalassaemia in a non-viable human embryo. Critics were quick to counter this as being any kind of advancement that benefits society.

“Their study should be a stern warning to any practitioner who thinks the technology is ready for testing to eradicate disease gene," says George Daley, a stem-cell biologist at Harvard Medical School in Boston.

Others still have pointed out the less-than-optimal results of the procedure. The veridical outcome is that of the 86 embryos genetically edited, only a small fraction had the disease replaced with a healthy gene. Therefore, it's not the science per se that is problematic, it is the question of ethics. Should we be doing this? As several have objected, this experiment sets a "troubling precedent." In fact, a consortium of 170 research firms have called for a moratorium on any future genome editing in human embryos until we know more.

To which I wonder, how do we know more without more research?

Yes, I know. Whenever this subject pops up, people seem to render an autonomic response. "Ermygod! Genetically-engineered babies! People getting perfect kids! Clones everywhere!" I don't refute that concern. As the rich-poor divide widens by the second, would only the wealthy be able to perform these genetic edits and thereby create the very "perfect kids" the critics dread? I'd say there's a good chance.

Despite that, should that preclude someone's right to eliminate a disease if they have that option available? I would say no. In many respects, I would say that the entire discussion around genetic modification needs to be re-framed. How do we advance science? Are there ethical applications of these procedures that would act to humanity's betterment? Finally, just what exactly is wrong with wanting to modify one's self?

Yeah, I know what comes with that last question posed. I told a colleague last week about this first genetically modified human embryo. He smirked and said...

"What could go wrong?"

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