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Talking About the Germline

Posted by Pete Shanks on July 8th, 2015


The debate about heritable human genetic modification continues, with opinions ranging from enthusiasm to dismay, and strong arguments for political as well as scientific involvement. Among the notable contributions in the last few weeks are the following. Jacob Corn, Scientific Director of the Innovative Genomics Initiative (IGI), which is “dedicated to the enhancement and proliferation of genome editing research and technology in both the academic and commercial research communities” in the San Francisco Bay Area wrote a blog post (July 6) that stated categorically:

At this time, the IGI Lab will not do research on human germline editing for several reasons, including: 1. The IGI Lab is focusing on diseases for which somatic (non-heritable) editing would be a transformative advance. … 2. Cas9 technology is currently too nascent for me to consider germline editing wise. …

Corn was an organizer of the Napa meeting that led to the call in Science for a moratorium. CRISPR pioneer Jennifer Doudna is IGI’s Executive Director. Critics may point to the phrase “at this time” as a wiggle or loophole, but he is specifying a moratorium even on research, not just applications. We may not see any stronger statements from major researchers in the field ahead of the National Academies meeting, which Corn says is slated for October. 

Daniel Sarewitz, co-director and co-founder of the Consortium for Science, Policy, and Outcomes at Arizona State University, made the important point in Nature (June 23) that weighing up the benefits and risks of gene editing and artificial intelligence is a political endeavour, not an academic one: "Science can’t solve it.”

Also in Nature (June 24), science and technology studies scholar Charis Thompson deplored the simplistically gendered nature of much of the discussion and urged a balanced approach aiming for “better science and better ethics.”   

Republican members of the U.S. House of Representatives have started to weigh in, via the appropriations process. That could be a worrying sign of political polarization. But on the Democratic side, Rep. Bill Foster, who describes himself (accurately) as “the last scientist with a Ph.D. remaining in Congress,” has also expressed serious concern. Writing in The Hill, he issued a warning about the implications of fundamentally changing the course of human evolution: 

We are on the verge of a technological breakthrough that could change the future of humankind; we must not blindly charge ahead. Now is the time to engage in serious and thoughtful discussion about what this means for the future of the human race.

Another commentary, by Craig Holdrege at the Nature Institute, discussed (June 22) “unforeseen effects” and unintended consequences, and strongly endorsed MIT and Whitehead Institute geneticist Rudolph Jaenisch’s view that “it is unacceptable to mutate normal embryos. For me, that means there is no application [of this technique in human embryos].”

By contrast, Henry Miller of the Hoover Institution at Stanford, a right-wing think tank, has no doubts, publishing a letter in Science (June 19) under the provocative title:

Germline gene therapy: We're ready

In passing, Miller accuses Baltimore et al.—the authors of the call for a moratorium in Science—of “apparent nostalgia” for Asilomar, which he regards as a failure because it “exaggerated the potential risks of recombinant DNA technology,” among other things.

There were also some relatively unhelpful pieces in the press. Newsweek published one (June 30) that conflated the upcoming Institute of Medicine report on “3-person IVF” with gene editing, and contained the confused line: “Embryo editing could allow a mother to replace faulty genes with genes from a different woman.”

An article in The New York Times (June 29) suggested that germline intervention was entirely unproblematic unless used “to change such traits as eye color or intelligence”; implied that only Chinese scientists were working on applying gene-editing technology in this way; and seemed to hint that Chinese researchers have weaker ethical constraints and standards than Americans do.

Much better was the Nature editorial (July 1) noting that

the culture wars … are a reality that all must face — and that is a good thing. … As public awareness of the technology increases, that ethical discussion will rightly be taken out of [academic] hands alone and planted firmly in those of broader society. 

Finally, Pew Research released (July 1) the results of a science-related public opinion poll conducted in August 2014. The public was split over “changing a baby's genetic characteristics to reduce the risk of serious diseases,” with 50% saying that was “taking medical advances too far,” while 46% considered it appropriate. (Young male liberals tended to be in favor, and the respondents were not informed about already existing medical alternatives to germline manipulation.) However, 83% thought that “changing a baby's genetic characteristics to make the baby more intelligent” was going too far.  

Previously on Biopolitical Times:





Posted in A "Post-Human" Future?, Global Governance, Inheritable Genetic Modification, Media Coverage, Pete Shanks's Blog Posts, US Federal


Comments

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  1. Comment by eresting, Nov 28th, 2016 10:59pm

    Do one million viewers of a You Tube video clip parlay into political relevance?
    192.168.1.1
    192.168.1.254


  2. Comment by Dwight Jones, Jul 10th, 2015 4:25pm

    Pete Shanks' "Talking About the Germline" and its ethical implications is a very useful overview of the regulatory viewpoint. But it doesn't resonate well outside academia.

    Like improving the Middle East by dropping 1000 lb bombs on them, we shackle scientists in the name of moral superiority-I cannot watch this conceit without growing anger.

    The human species (not race, please) is presently living in poverty owing largely to overpopulation, militarism and corruption - a deadly mix. The hard evidence of the 20th century and this one is that we are an incompatible plague of incompatible killer apes, until proven otherwise. We twice organized a League of Nations and it was twice emasculated by rogue states (especially the US, who never signed the first one, mock the second). We may simply be smug effetes despite our titles and trappings, and our affected hand-wringing over the rights of the unborn.

    Should this abject condition of our species be of any immediate interest to scientists and ethicists, or shall Rome burn while we build every-higher ivory towers, and stock them with more generations of Oxbridge pundits escaping the British analytic tradition? We see them in the humanism camp all the time, claiming special insights into neuroscience. Ibid.

    The coming decades will probably see us accept "faceism" as a burden, ethically, and allow changes. We will become acclimated to the concept of a "later twin" and "gene scrubbing" as part of the swirl of diversity and variety that competing in a race with AI must entail. The real quest is to discover what identity really is - and we don't know yet. It's a white elephant being examined by blond men.

    My own viewpoint (as one more linguistic analysis grad) is that identity is to be found in our genotype, and that simple persistence is the best strategy, the "stink" that maintains the Self when AI and brain uploading, uh, fail.

    Wearing a pair of lead luddite boots and claiming moral wisdom is not participation, it's a continuing displacement of fading academic resources. If you have no synthetic ideas, please don't stand in the doorway, don't block off the hall - this has been draining western thought like an abscess for a century.

    If we want to preserve our germlines, support cloning of the species before germline intrusions do their bad things. Maintains racial purity...D'oh!

    Overstated? Perhaps.

    But the plague rages and the apes have set fire to the atmosphere. Sorry your cheque has been delayed.


  3. Comment by Dwight Jones, Jul 10th, 2015 4:22pm

    Pete Shanks' "Talking About the Germline" and its ethical implications is a very useful overview of the regulatory viewpoint. But it doesn't resonate well outside academia.

    Like improving the Middle East by dropping 1000 lb bombs on them, we shackle scientists in the name of moral superiority-I cannot watch this conceit without growing anger.

    The human species (not race, please) is presently living in poverty owing largely to overpopulation, militarism and corruption - a deadly mix. The hard evidence of the 20th century and this one is that we are an incompatible plague of incompatible killer apes, until proven otherwise. We twice organized a League of Nations and it was twice emasculated by rogue states (especially the US, who never signed the first one, mock the second). We may simply be smug effetes despite our titles and trappings, and our affected hand-wringing over the rights of the unborn.

    Should this abject condition of our species be of any immediate interest to scientists and ethicists, or shall Rome burn while we build every-higher ivory towers, and stock them with more generations of Oxbridge pundits escaping the British analytic tradition? We see them in the humanism camp all the time, claiming special insights into neuroscience. Ibid.

    The coming decades will probably see us accept "faceism" as a burden, ethically, and allow changes. We will become acclimated to the concept of a "later twin" and "gene scrubbing" as part of the swirl of diversity and variety that competing in a race with AI must entail. The real quest is to discover what identity really is - and we don't know yet. It's a white elephant being examined by blond men.

    My own viewpoint (as one more linguistic analysis grad) is that identity is to be found in our genotype, and that simple persistence is the best strategy, the "stink" that maintains the Self when AI and brain uploading, uh, fail.

    Wearing a pair of lead luddite boots and claiming moral wisdom is not participation, it's a continuing displacement of fading academic resources. If you have no synthetic ideas, please don't stand in the doorway, don't block off the hall - this has been draining western thought like an abscess for a century.

    If we want to preserve our germlines, support cloning of the species before germline intrusions do their bad things. Maintains racial purity...D'oh!

    Overstated? Perhaps.

    But the plague rages and the apes have set fire to the atmosphere. Sorry your cheque has been delayed.


 


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