March of science: The 21st century will be the age of genetics

It is time to put our fears about ‘designer babies’ into perspective

Share

Genetic engineering. Applied to strains of wheat, the words are controversial enough. Applied to human beings, they conjure a nightmare future of biological totalitarianism. In reality, though, even the bravest of new worlds is not quite so black and white. Scientific progress comes with as much potential for good as for ill, after all.

The breakthrough in gene therapy revealed by this newspaper today raises such questions as starkly as ever. Even to the initiated the breakthrough is “jaw-dropping”, to quote Nobel laureate Craig Mello. To the rest of us, the implications are nigh unimaginable.

Until now, it has only been possible to “edit” a living genome using dangerously blunt methods; modified viruses are sure to alter infected cells’ DNA, but exactly how and where they will do so is beyond our control. A new technique, developed from bacteria’s ability to slice up viruses, changes everything. The procedure is not only simple, it is breathtakingly precise. But if the process itself is astounding, its prospective uses are even more so. Indeed, “Crispr” – its technical name – has already spawned a flood of applied research in the year since it was developed at a university in California. From improved crops to cleverer medicine, this is a step forward so profound that it takes genetics into a new era of practical benefits and ethical concerns.

Among the myriad possible applications, the implications for so-called “germ-line” therapies to fix heritable single-gene disorders are particularly noteworthy – and particularly controversial. Such techniques are banned under current laws because of concerns that, by modifying the DNA in IVF embryos, the changes are not only spread throughout the organism but are also passed from them to future generations. Cue prophecies of “designer babies” engineered for anything from eye colour to intelligence to hand-eye co-ordination, if not all three.

There are, of course, very real dangers too. But the risk of future misuse cannot be a reason not to pursue medical treatments which could remedy disorders that blight both individual lives and generations of afflicted families. Germ-line gene therapy was banned primarily because it was unsafe, but Crispr changes the ethical equation. And, with that change, our approach to germ-line gene therapies will need to be reconsidered.

Britain has form in such matters. We have always been at the forefront of fertility treatment. Louise Brown – the world’s first test-tube baby – was born here. Our Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority was the first of its kind in the world, created following the Warnock report, which itself set a global standard.

The HFEA is already probing the edges of its long-standing ban on germ-line therapies with a public consultation on mitrochondrial replacement – a practice which would banish the spectre of one type of genetic disorder, creating what have become known as three-parent babies in the process. Thanks to Crispr, it is time to break new ground once again.

Yes, there are risks. But progress has always been a risky business. The alternative is neither morally nor practically preferable, it is simply more passive. Modern genetic science, with its promise of revolutionary medical advance, is surely to be embraced rather than feared.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
SPONSORED FEATURES
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Project Assistant

£17000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They are a leading company in the field ...

Recruitment Genius: DBA Developer - SQL Server

£30000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: Office Manager

£26041 - £34876 per annum: Recruitment Genius: There has never been a more exc...

Recruitment Genius: Travel Customer Service and Experience Manager

£14000 - £17000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: The fastest growing travel comp...

Day In a Page

Read Next
A pack of seagulls squabble over discarded food left on the beach at St Ives on July 28, 2015  

Number of urban seagulls in Britain nearly quadruples: Hide food and avoid chicks to stay in gulls’ good books

Tom Bawden
 

Blairites be warned, this could be the moment Labour turns into Syriza

Andrew Grice
Turkey-Kurdish conflict: Obama's deal with Ankara is a betrayal of Syrian Kurds and may not even weaken Isis

US betrayal of old ally brings limited reward

Since the accord, the Turks have only waged war on Kurds while no US bomber has used Incirlik airbase, says Patrick Cockburn
VIPs gather for opening of second Suez Canal - but doubts linger over security

'A gift from Egypt to the rest of the world'

VIPs gather for opening of second Suez Canal - but is it really needed?
Jeremy Corbyn dresses abysmally. That's a great thing because it's genuine

Jeremy Corbyn dresses abysmally. That's a great thing because it's genuine

Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, applauds a man who clearly has more important things on his mind
The male menopause and intimations of mortality

Aches, pains and an inkling of mortality

So the male menopause is real, they say, but what would the Victorians, 'old' at 30, think of that, asks DJ Taylor
Man Booker Prize 2015: Anna Smaill - How can I possibly be on the list with these writers I have idolised?

'How can I possibly be on the list with these writers I have idolised?'

Man Booker Prize nominee Anna Smaill on the rise of Kiwi lit
Bettany Hughes interview: The historian on how Socrates would have solved Greece's problems

Bettany Hughes interview

The historian on how Socrates would have solved Greece's problems
Art of the state: Pyongyang propaganda posters to be exhibited in China

Art of the state

Pyongyang propaganda posters to be exhibited in China
Mildreds and Vanilla Black have given vegetarian food a makeover in new cookbooks

Vegetarian food gets a makeover

Long-time vegetarian Holly Williams tries to recreate some of the inventive recipes in Mildreds and Vanilla Black's new cookbooks
The haunting of Shirley Jackson: Was the gothic author's life really as bleak as her fiction?

The haunting of Shirley Jackson

Was the gothic author's life really as bleak as her fiction?
Bill Granger recipes: Heading off on holiday? Try out our chef's seaside-inspired dishes...

Bill Granger's seaside-inspired recipes

These dishes are so easy to make, our chef is almost embarrassed to call them recipes
Ashes 2015: Tourists are limp, leaderless and distinctly UnAustralian

Tourists are limp, leaderless and distinctly UnAustralian

A woefully out-of-form Michael Clarke embodies his team's fragile Ashes campaign, says Michael Calvin
Blairites be warned, this could be the moment Labour turns into Syriza

Andrew Grice: Inside Westminster

Blairites be warned, this could be the moment Labour turns into Syriza
HMS Victory: The mystery of Britain's worst naval disaster is finally solved - 271 years later

The mystery of Britain's worst naval disaster is finally solved - 271 years later

Exclusive: David Keys reveals the research that finally explains why HMS Victory went down with the loss of 1,100 lives
Survivors of the Nagasaki atomic bomb attack: Japan must not abandon its post-war pacifism

'I saw people so injured you couldn't tell if they were dead or alive'

Nagasaki survivors on why Japan must not abandon its post-war pacifism
Jon Stewart: The voice of Democrats who felt Obama had failed to deliver on his 'Yes We Can' slogan, and the voter he tried hardest to keep onside

The voter Obama tried hardest to keep onside

Outgoing The Daily Show host, Jon Stewart, became the voice of Democrats who felt the President had failed to deliver on his ‘Yes We Can’ slogan. Tim Walker charts the ups and downs of their 10-year relationship on screen