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Children would be the subject of experiments. Parents would be influenced by genetic advertising from IVF clinics. Germ-line engineering would encourage the spread of allegedly superior traits. And it would affect people not yet born, without their being able to agree to it. Others predict that hard-to-oppose medical uses will be identified.
A couple with several genetic diseases at once might not be able to find a suitable embryo. Treating infertility is another possibility. One cause is a genetic defect in which a region of about one million to six million DNA letters is missing from the Y chromosome. Although not all the details have been worked out, he thinks the technology could replace DNA letters essentially without side effects.
It can lead to augmentation. Another drastically cuts the risk of heart attacks. People with it never get dementia and remain sharp into old age. Church thinks CRISPR could be used to provide people with favorable versions of genes, making DNA edits that would act as vaccines against some of the most common diseases we face today. Church tends to dodge questions about genetically modified babies.
Some thinkers have concluded that we should not pass up the chance to make improvements to our species. A Pew Research survey carried out last August found that 46 percent of adults approved of genetic modification of babies to reduce the risk of serious diseases. Nick Bostrom, an Oxford philosopher best known for his book Superintelligence , which raised alarms about the risks of artificial intelligence in computers, has also looked at whether humans could use reproductive technology to improve human intellect.
What if everyone could be a little bit smarter? Or a few people could be a lot smarter? To some scientists, the explosive advance of genetics and biotech means germ-line engineering is inevitable. Of course, safety questions would be paramount. But ultimately, if the benefits seem to outweigh the risks, medicine would take the chance.
But someone had to take the plunge. In January, on Saturday the 24th, around 20 scientists, ethicists, and legal experts traveled to Napa Valley, California, for a retreat among the vineyards at the Carneros Inn.
She had become aware that scientists might be thinking of crossing the germ line, and she was concerned. Now she wanted to know: But that swings both ways. At the meeting, along with ethicists like Greely, was Paul Berg, a Stanford biochemist and Nobel Prize winner known for having organized the Asilomar Conference, a historic forum at which biologists reached an agreement on how to safely proceed with recombinant DNA, the newly discovered method of splicing DNA into bacteria.
Should there be an Asilomar for germ-line engineering? Doudna thinks so, but the prospects for consensus seem dim. Biotechnology research is now global, involving hundreds of thousands of people.
Doudna told me she hoped that if American scientists agreed to a moratorium on human germ-line engineering, it might influence researchers elsewhere in the world to cease their work. Doudna said she felt that a self-imposed pause should apply not only to making gene-edited babies but also to using CRISPR to alter human embryos, eggs, or sperm—as researchers at Harvard, Northeastern, and OvaScience are doing.
And I think those experiments can be done in nonhuman systems. I would favor a very cautious approach. Not everyone agrees that germ-line engineering is such a big worry, or that experiments should be padlocked. Greely notes that in the United States, there are piles of regulations to keep lab science from morphing into a genetically modified baby anytime soon.
The final list of signatories included Church, although he did not attend the Napa meeting. As news has spread of germ-line experiments, some biotechnology companies now working on CRISPR have realized that they will have to take a stand.
Modifying human heredity has always been a theoretical possibility. Doudna says she is also thinking about these issues.
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