Has the Genetic Arms Race Begun?

Has the Genetic Arms Race Begun?

150 150 Jamie Metzl

Articles in Nature yesterday and in today’s New York Times describe the controversial recent announcement by a Chinese researcher that he has used cutting edge precision gene editing techniques (CRISPR-cas9) on non-viable human embryos.  It is rumored that the results of more research like this will be announced from China in the coming months. Every day we are receiving more evidence like this that the human genetic revolution, with its massive scientific, ethical, political, and national security implications, has already begun.

Seven years ago, I wrote an article in Democracy and testified before Congress arguing that a dangerous human genetic arms race was likely unless countries and others came together to begin getting our collective minds around the immense opportunities and challenges of genetics technologies. My Foreign Affairs article last year and Washington Post editorial this year, as well as my new novel, Genesis Code, all explore what can happen when revolutionary technologies, national competitiveness, and big-power politics intersect. Although Genesis Code is set in the future, developments this year demonstrate with absolute clarity that our genetic future coming faster than we think.

The votes in the British houses of parliament earlier this year authorizing clinical trials of mitochondrial transfer treatments for women carrying mitochondrial disease undergoing in vitro fertilization is exhibit A. I have written about this elsewhere, but this is the first time that a national government has authorized heritable genetic manipulations of human embryos. Although I am supportive of the British process and ultimate decision, it seems clear to me that if we are comfortable using heritable genetic engineering to eliminate one disease we will very likely use this type of process to eliminate others at some point in the future.

The Chinese announcement is exhibit B. Recent letters by high-profile scientists to Science and Nature have called, respectively, for extreme caution in using these gene editing techniques on humans or an outright moratorium. Although the Chinese scientists used CRISPR-cas9 to engineer already non-viable human embryos, and although their efforts were largely unsuccessful, this bold step forward highlight exactly the kind of cultural and national differences in approaches to genetic technologies that I have been writing about. Precision gene editing was not successful in these cases, but, either via CRISPR or some other technology, it will almost certainly be possible in the not-too distant future.

And even if the day when scientists can reliably engineer the genome is farther off than some of us might think, preimplantation embryo diagnosis and selection, a far simpler and more effective way to eliminate many genetic diseases and ultimately select for perceived positive attributes like height or intelligence, already exists today. (Again, please have a look at my earlier writing on this.)

The challenge we collectively face is that the same genetic technologies likely to eliminate some diseases and help us live longer, healthier, more robust lives will also open the door to other forms of genetic engineering less comfortable to many people. And while this science is advancing exponentially, the regulatory framework to optimize its benefits and minimize its risk only inches forward glacially. Additionally, different societies have different views on how and whether or not to proceed. So even if the US places a moratorium on the most aggressive genetic enhancement procedures (like using CRSISPR-cas9 gene editing on human fetuses for the time being), other societies, likely including China, may well choose to charge ahead. 

Where all of this leads me is to, as a start, reiterate a proposal I have already made. Altering human evolution can not only be a question for scientists. If it is true, as I believe it is, that the genetic revolution has already begun, we must begin a meaningful national and global dialogue on its implications. Congress should authorize a national task force, and the UN a global one, to help lay out the parameters of such a dialogue, which should bring together universities, civil society organizations, faith groups, and others. We may not be able to agree on everything, or even much, but we must begin to lay a foundation of understanding that can help us better grapple with the many huge issues fast heading our way.