Illustration by Epic Made
(from Homo transformans: The Origin and nature of the Species)
The Cassius Foundation genetically engineered the serojabovid by splicing the genes of a boar and a bison into the genome of a human who could transform into other animals (an H. transformans). This hybrid humanoid was developed for purposes of performing hard labor in Cassius villages.
Unlike the Cassius Foundation, geneticists within H’Aleth and Erwina advocated for the judicious and prudent use of genetic engineering. Mapping genomes would permit the identification of specific gene sequences that would allow some manipulation of genetic code. Any changes made to an individual’s genetic code would be to the benefit of that individual or to their offspring. Genetic engineering would not be imposed without the individual’s consent and would not be used to create super humans or hybrids. (Excerpts from Homo transformans: The Origin and Nature of the Species.)
March is National Ethics Awareness month. It promotes ethical decision-making and practices in organizations and businesses. This also applies to scientific and healthcare organizations whose goals are to improve the human condition. Most businesses and organizations have a code of ethical practices. Clearly, the Cassius Foundation did not.
Targeted Genome Editing
Genome editing refers to a change in native DNA by artificial means. Genetically engineered and programmable enzymes designed to cut DNA (nucleases) are new technologies that offer a highly specific method of artificially modifying an existing gene sequence (Baliou, et al., 2018; Lee, et al., 2018). Subsequently, genetic modifications ‒ e.g., the excision of a defective gene and /or insertion of a normal gene ‒ can be accomplished. In effect, the edit results in an artificial change to a gene or gene sequence ‒hopefully, with a desirable outcome for the individual affected. Despite best intentions, there are still risks associated with the use of these methods. These include the potential for side effects and immune reactions, and the technical accuracy needed to both deliver and replace genes (Anzalone, et al., 2019; Li, T., et al., 2019).
Ethical Issues in Gene Therapy
Gene therapy offers the possibility of treating a multitude of human disorders involving a single gene (e.g., sickle cell disease) and may ameliorate many other conditions (Memi, et al.) The notion is to replace a defective gene with one that functions properly using gene editing techniques (e.g., CRISPR/Cas9). To date, most of these techniques have targeted non reproductive cells. Recently, a scientist reported modifying the genome of an embryo with the goal of rendering the child resistant to the HIV virus (Gumer, 2019). Reportedly, the experiment resulted in the birth of a healthy infant. This action suggests modifying a fertilized ovum, a reproductive cell. Ethical issues abound in the debate over the use of genetic engineering to modify even nonreproductive (somatic) cells in the human genome. The intensity and urgency of these issues ballooned with modification of a reproductive (germ) cell and the birth of a genetically engineered baby (Hirsch, et al., 2019); (Li, J., et al.). This capability raises the spectre of eugenics.
Under deontological principles of ethics, the decision to act is based on a duty to do good (beneficence) and to do no harm (non malfeasance) or, if unavoidable, do the least harm. The ethics committees and internal review boards (IRB) of individual institutions weigh the benefits and risks of an action and the propriety of taking such action. The World Health Organization Research Ethics Review Committee https://www.who.int/ethics/review-committee/en/ and the National Institutes of Health Department of Bioethics https://www.bioethics.nih.gov/ home/ index.shtml are two examples. Ethics committees often have to address actions that are already underway to determine if they should continue or be stopped. In the case of an IRB, the review is usually completed based on a proposal – before the action takes place. In the case of the infant above, many of these steps were bypassed (Li, J., 2019).
Anzalone, A. V., Randolph, P. B., Davis, J. R., et al. (2019.) Search-and-replace genome editing without double-strand breaks or donor DNA. Nature, doi: 10.1038/s41586-109-1711-4.
Gumer JM. (2019.) The Wisdom of Germline Editing: An Ethical Analysis of the Use of CRISPR-Cas9 to Edit Human Embryos. New Bioeth, 25(2):137-152. doi: 10.1080/20502877.2019.1606151.
Hirsch, F., Iphofen, R., & Koporc, Z. (2019). Ethics assessment in research proposals adopting CRISPR technology. Biochemia medica, 29(2), 020202. https://doi.org/10.11613/BM.2019.020202.
Li, J. R., Walker, S., Nie, J. B., & Zhang, X. Q. (2019). Experiments that led to the first gene-edited babies: the ethical failings and the urgent need for better governance. Journal of Zhejiang University. Science. B, 20(1), 32–38. https://doi.org/10.1631/jzus.B1800624.
Li, T., Zhu, L., Xiao, B., et al. (2019.) CRISPR-Cpf1-mediated genome editing and gene regulation in human cells. Biotechnol Adv, doi: 10.1016/j.biotechadv.2018.10.013.
Memi ,F., Ntokou, A., Papangeli, I. (2018.) CRISPR/Cas9 gene-editing: Research technologies, clinical applications and ethical considerations. Semin Perinatol, 42(8):487-500. doi: 10.1053/j.semperi.2018.09.003.