Last week in Penny Sleuth I wrote about a big new breakthrough in biotechnology called CRISPR. CRISPR is a new technique for writing, deleting and generally mucking around with DNA, which is “the instruction manual for how to build living things”.
I said that CRISPR had started a “scientific stampede”, with scientists using it for everything from high yielding crops to yoghurt production to reviving the Woolly Mammoth.
Tom Bulford taught me about it. He’s been writing about CRISPR for a couple of years his biotechnology newsletter, showing his subscribers how to invest in gene-editing companies.
But here’s the thing: when it comes to gene-editing, there’s an elephant in the room.
CRISPR and other genetics technologies can be used to edit human genes.
It could be used to screen for problems like schizophrenia or genes which cause cancer. Or it could be used to give children a better chance at brains and beauty. And believe it or not, the House of Commons has already taken the first steps towards legalising this stuff.
Like a lot of huge biotechnology stories, this seems to have slipped past people. Why isn’t everyone talking about this?
The top of the slope
The House of Commons passed a bill allowing “to three parent babies” on the 5th of February. It makes Britain the only country in the world that allows this treatment.
What are three parent babies? Well, a small number of people have a genetic condition which causes their children to suffer very serious health problems. By implanting their DNA in a healthy person’s cells (ie, the “third parent”), they can have healthy children via IVF.
This all seems perfectly reasonable and humane, right?
That may be so. But the thing is, it’s a couple of very small step between this and designer babies.
Basically, in this case doctors are replacing a baby’s “bad” genes with “good” ones. But as our understanding of the genome improves, we’re going to be able to identify more and more “bad” and “good” genes.
At first, like with the three-parent example, the technique will probably be used to get rid of bad genes. The ones that lead to genetically carried diseases.
The problem is that on a practical level, there’s no difference between screening against the bad genes such as those which lead to disease, and screening for good genes such as those which lead to a higher IQ.
Here’s Derek Lowe, a biotech scientist:
“The big fundamental [breakthrough] is indeed here right now: the deliberate editing of the human genetic inheritance… it could be done right now by anyone with the nerve to do it.”
Do you doubt that there’ll be a big demand for it? Here’s what the discoverer of DNA, James Watson, had to say:
“Once you have a way in which you can improve our children, no-one can stop it.”
You best be ready
I don’t even know whether I’m for or against this. I’m just sharing what I know.
Soon enough, though, I’ve a feeling we’re all going to have an opinion. It’s going to be a hell of a debate.
What I can say for sure is that it’s a great example of how biotech discoveries go unnoticed by most people. Even in this case… I mean, I can’t imagine a more emotive or important topic… people just don’t seem to be paying attention!
Five years ago scientists hadn’t much of a clue what CRISPR was, let alone how to use it to genetically modify babies or revive the Wooly Mammoth.
Today, a small but growing number of companies are using CRISPR to tackle big problems in medicine, agriculture and industry.
Lord only knows how far it’ll go in a couple of years’ time.
Until next time,
P.S. I got a great response to last weeks’ issue, thanks to everyone who wrote in. It turns out more of you are interested in, and invested in, biotech than I had expected. Encouraging!
So at the risk of blowing up my inbox, I have to ask… what does everyone make of the prospect of GM humans? Is screening for “negative” traits okay? What about positive traits? Will governments be able to stop this? Should they?
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