Bearing witness to this is what happened recently with the CRISPR-cas9, a new tool of genetic engineering that can cut DNA, and by so doing render certain genes inactive, modify mutated DNA fragments, or introduce new sequences in targeted regions of the genome. So, it is a system that takes its place in the arsenal of genetic technologies and that could allow genetic engineering to perform exploits: an unprecedented way of curing human genetic illnesses – even if it’s a long way off, experiments on cultures of human cells and other diverse organisms are promising.
There should be cause for celebration here. Yet fear overtakes the stage. As recent articles in the two prestigious reviews Science and Nature indicate, the scientific community is seriously questioned by the use of this genetic editing tool on human germ cells, on the embryo, that could carry a major risk, with unpredictable modifications that would end up being transmitted to future generations. With the perspective of « enhancement therapies », the infusion of new genetic characteristics, unprecedented manipulations aiming at perfect embryos, it is anxiety that follows in enthusiasm’s footsteps. And with it, the researchers’ -as well as the ethnicists’, followed in turn by the politicians’- restlessness. Caught in the turmoil, some scientists suggest a moratorium on this research: stop moving onward and pause to think.
Paradoxically, spontaneous breaks in DNA occur naturally and continually in our genome, with enzyme cut and repair systems – similar to CRISPR-cas9 – that try to maintain genomic integrity as best as possible. However, no one is particularly concerned about that. Natural forces would be legitimate. On the other hand, they would be illegitimate the moment they became deliberate or programmed.
In the face of this advancement, we are struck by a question that seems to come as a surprise when it is the product of a long enduring process. Why would we need to stop in order to think? Can’t we think better and faster to enable progress? Why don’t we have the time to think? Couldn’t we have thought about it beforehand? Things are in the works. Couldn’t we suggest an alternative? Should we only look at the drifts, before the therapeutic possibilities? In any case, stopping everything won’t keep others in countries that don’t have laws or recommendations, from pursuing the genetic manipulation of embryos without control.
We always encounter the same tension between the bio-catastrophists who denounce the biological risks introduced by such advancements on the one hand, and the techno-prophets who pipe all-out the potential benefits of these techniques. Is there no golden mean? If Galileo had stopped looking through his telescope and calculating out of fear of causing an evolution in ideas, where would we be today?
* Science, March 2015, Embryo engineering alarm.
Nature, March 2015, Don’t edit the human germ line.