Genetic engineering has progressed substantially, but is not a new endeavor, says biology professor

Augustana professor Tom Terzin discusses the history of genetic engineering, its future and the ethical concerns involved in human genetic modification.

Tia Lalani - 26 March 2019

By Tom Terzin

From Sparta to the CRISPR CAS 9 technology used on human embryos last November, the will to genetically engineer human beings has existed for a very long time, and comes with a number of ethical considerations. Photo by Louis Reed on Unsplash.

Can science finally produce superhumans? The wish to improve the genetic quality of our species is older than our knowledge of genetics. An old story tells us of the Spartans, who would examine newborns, especially young males destined for military service, and let any found with imperfections die of exposure. Today, we call the concept of manipulating human genetics, for the purpose of improving the population, eugenics.

A scientific term for a type of eugenics is "preimplantation genetic diagnosis" or PGD. During the in vitro fertilization procedure, embryos are screened before implantation in the uterus. This tradition is not far from the Spartan practice, except it occurs during the early development of a human embryo.

In China, in November of 2018, twin baby girls, Lulu and Nana, were the first humans to be genetically edited using CRISPR CAS 9 technology. While gene therapy (a procedure that involves replacing mutated genes with healthy ones in human tissues) has existed since the 1980s, this case is the first known in which new technology was used on human beings to target and alter a healthy gene with the goal of improving human beings beyond our natural genetic makeup.

This research was announced at a scientific conference in Hong Kong last November, by Chinese researcher Dr. Jiankui He. He conducted this research in secret, outside of the university, with a group of volunteer parents. The germline genome of the future babies was edited, meaning that a particular DNA sequence was precisely deleted, so that the babies would not have a functional CCR5 gene. Protein coded by this gene is an entry point for HIV infection, so Dr. He's goal was to produce genetically modified humans resistant to HIV infection. The condition to participate in Dr. He's experiment was that a prospective father had to test HIV positive while the mother tested HIV negative.

Prior to the implantation of early embryos in the uterus, Dr. He performed PGD to see if the genetic change was successfully introduced. His research has not been published in any peer-reviewed journal, although it has been confirmed by the World Health Organization that the babies Lulu and Nana have indeed been genetically modified. The fact that the procedure was performed on their embryonic stem cells means that the condition is going to be inherited by the future offspring of Lulu and Nana, marking the possible point of a new and altered human population.

This development will lead to many ethical debates about the role and purpose of human genetic modification. I would like to share a few of my concerns. First, if scientists are not required to express their ethical opinion about the ethical questions of research, we cannot expect them to be ethically responsible. Second, CRISPR CAS 9 technology was developed in the western world and is in broad experimental use by the Defense Advanced Research Project Agency (DARPA) who are responsible for the development of emerging technologies for use by the US military. We need to consider their motivations. Finally, the general population does not have any democratic say or role in decision making when any new technology is about to affect humankind. Unfortunately, the general population, who typically places its trust in the benevolence of scientific progress, is entitled only to deal with the consequences.

Tom Terzin, Associate Professor of Biology, Augustana. This column originally appeared in the Camrose Booster on March 12, 2019.