Gene Editing, Designer Babies, and “The New Eugenics”

Last month, a group of Chinese scientists published a research paper in the journal Protein and Cell that rocked the science and bioethics community. The research reported on experiments involving DNA editing of a human embryo – a first for the international scientific community.

dna-editing
The research, conducted on non-viable embryos, attempted to replace certain genes that cause an often fatal blood disorder. Nick Stockton of Wired.com explained:

“The technique Huang and his co-investigators used, CRISPR/Cas9, allows researchers to snip out and insert specific segments of genetic code. Discovered in 2012, the technique is the subject of a lot of excitement and trepidation in the cell sciences (and its investors are already being suggested as candidates for a Nobel Prize). Relative to other gene editing techniques, CRISPR/Cas9 is easy to use, and it seems to work in just about every living organism. That means it could, among other possibilities, hold the key to personalized medical therapies, new drugs, and (as the Chinese scientists attempted) human genetic modification.”

Beyond technical concerns about the unknown short and long-term consequences of gene editing in humans, the news has raised profound questions about the ethics of gene editing, with many blocs of scientists calling for a moratorium on human embryonic DNA editing. Wired quoted George Q. Daley, stem cell biologist, who wrote:

“There are two issues: One is trying to understand at a deeper scientific level whether such an approach can be made safely. The second would be the broader and deeper ethical considerations of editing our heredity. I feel very significant concerns about using a new technology to do something as bold as changing someone’s germ line – not just for that individual, but for all of the offspring [emphasis added].”

While there has been much debate about the ethics of “designer babies,”* primarily accomplished through the artificial sorting and selection of sperm, actual DNA manipulation raises similar, if more pronounced, questions about scientists’ ability to “play god,” and how the use of such technologies in practice may reinforce hierarchies of power based on access, class, race, disability, and nationality.

 

*See the documentary Designer Babies: The New Eugenics (2010) which examines both the ethical implications and practical application of “designing babies.”   

James Watson Sells Nobel Prize

James D. Watson, the former director of the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory (which was once the base of the Eugenics Record Office), has successfully sold his 1962 Nobel Prize for the discovery of DNA’s double-helix for $4.1 million. Watson, who was director of the genetic research facility at CSHL beginning in 1968, and later served as president, chancellor and chancellor emeritus, is planning on giving the proceeds to several universities and CSHL.

 

James Watson

 

Watson is trying to revamp his image, which was tarnished by controversial statements about race and intelligence in recent years. In a 2007 interview with The Sunday Times of London Magazine, Watson, discussing Africa stated, “all our social policies are based on the fact that their intelligence is the same as ours, whereas all the testing says not really.” He went on to suggest that black employees were not equal to whites. As a consequence, Watson says, he has been shunned by the academic community.

In an interesting turn of events, the medal was purchased by Russian mogul Alisher Usmanov, who plans to return the medal to Watson. “In my opinion, a situation in which an outstanding scientist has to sell a medal recognizing his achievements is unacceptable,” Usmanov said in a statement. “James Watson is one of the greatest biologists in the history of mankind and his award for the discovery of DNA structure must belong to him.”

Read more:

James Watson Puts Nobel Medal on Auction Block (New York Times)

Russia’s richest man buys James Watson’s Nobel medal at auction – to return it to him (Washington Post)