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Medicine Science Technology

Ethicists Advise Caution In Applying CRISPR Gene Editing To Humans (washingtonpost.com) 159

New submitter Baron_Yam quotes a report from Washington Post (Warning: may be paywalled; alternate source): Ethicists have been working overtime to figure out how to handle CRISPR, the revolutionary gene-editing technique that could potentially prevent congenital diseases but could also be used for cosmetic enhancements and lead to permanent, heritable changes in the human species. The latest iteration of this ongoing CRISPR debate is a report published Tuesday by the National Academy of Sciences and the National Academy of Medicine. The report, a series of guidelines written by 22 experts from multiple countries and a variety of academic specialties, presents a kind of flashing red light for CRISPR. The report did not recommend an absolute prohibition of gene editing on the human "germline" if such interventions can be proved safe. This would involve genetic changes to eggs, sperm or embryos that would persist in an adult and could be inherited by future generations. For some ethicists, that represents a slippery slope. At the conclusion of a gene-editing summit in Washington at the National Academy of Sciences in December 2015, scientists said that although some basic research could proceed, it would be irresponsible to use genetically modified germline cells for the purpose of establishing a pregnancy. But the new report takes a slightly more permissive, forward-thinking position, saying that, if and when such interventions are proved safe -- which could be in the near future -- and if numerous criteria are met to ensure that such gene editing is regulated and limited, it could potentially be used to treat rare, serious diseases. "We say proceed with all due caution, but we don't prohibit germline, after considerable discussion and debate," said Richard Hynes, an MIT biologist and one of the leaders of the new study. "We're talking only about fixing diseases."
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Ethicists Advise Caution In Applying CRISPR Gene Editing To Humans

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  • damn. Star Trek again with that Gene War thing.
    • Yeah, according to Memory Alpha:

      Rising from the ashes of the Eugenics Wars of the mid-1990s, the era of World War III was a period of global conflict on Earth that eventually escalated into a nuclear cataclysm and genocidal war over issues including genetic manipulation and Human genome enhancement. World War III itself ultimately lasted from 2026 through 2053, and resulted in the death of some 600 million Humans. By that time, many of the planet's major cities and governments had been destroyed. (ENT: "In

      • by Anonymous Coward

        Yeah, according to Memory Alpha:

        Gundam Seed seems a better reference.
        Gundam Seed [wikia.com]

        Ethics aside, if I could somehow edit my genes to gain the mental acuity, reflexes, and health of a coordinator, I'd be horribly tempted, particularly if it could be done without telling anyone. Of course I'd be more wary if I planned to have children, since the risk one takes for oneself is different than one takes for their children..

        • If you're sufficiently fancy in your application you could avoid editing your germ line DNA...
  • So... (Score:3, Funny)

    by DontBeAMoran ( 4843879 ) on Wednesday February 15, 2017 @10:45PM (#53878009)

    What's the ETA for catgirls? ^_^

  • by Anonymous Coward

    If you're a bioethicist, you basically just have to learn one word: "Don't."

    That's all they ever say when you invite one to some panel or something. If you also know how to "urge caution," you're basically guaranteed tenure.

    • by s.petry ( 762400 )

      Sure, and then your boss/funding source says "your fired or collect a fat check". This is an age old problem with science and power. Sadly we can only control ourselves, so if we don't China/Russia/Germany/England (anyone with enough money and manpower) will.

      I get it, it sounds good on paper. Unfortunately morality of the scientists is not the only issue.

      • And you think bosses even consider the bioethicist points of view?

        That's almost as funny as the implicit claim that research funding is ethically constrained.

        • by slew ( 2918 )

          And you think bosses even consider the bioethicist points of view?

          That's almost as funny as the implicit claim that research funding is ethically constrained.

          Sure, by definition bosses consider a bioethicist's (or other consultants') point of view. They consider it when they hire them and they consider it when they fire them. The employed bioethicist will probably know who paying the bills and what answer the boss wants to hear.

          Thus the comment that all research funding is ethically constrained is effectively a tautology. If the research requires funding, it mirror the ethics of the funding.

        • by s.petry ( 762400 )

          As "slew [slashdot.org]" stated, I'm guessing that the bosses do hear and consider the ethics presented by the scientists. I never stated or insinuated otherwise. That does not mean, nor should it imply, that those are the only two voices in the equation especially when you look at funding. Funding is not a single layer up the food chain, it may be dozens of layers up the food chain. The public at large has no input on those decisions, and quite frankly can only find out about them after the fact.

          I'm not really sure w

    • Exactly, what the heck is an "ethicist" anyway? Aren't we all ethicists? "Ethicists Advise Caution" is so far below interesting.
  • Fire up the SS Botany Bay.

  • by FeelGood314 ( 2516288 ) on Wednesday February 15, 2017 @10:55PM (#53878057)
    Initially this is going to be very expensive so only rich people will be able to use it for their children. Most rich people don't have genetic mutations they will pass on, they (and everyone else), will want taller, whiter, more athletic children, lighter coloured eyes, blonde hair, etc. Next we will figure out the genes for intelligence. In 15 years the very rich will be able to give these gifts to their children. In 40 years every Olympic medal will be won by one of these children. If you thought the rich had an advantage by sending their kids to better schools just imagine what this will do to inequality. (Although maybe we can hope that in 50 years this will lead to more intelligent and more compassionate politicians)
    • by Truekaiser ( 724672 ) on Wednesday February 15, 2017 @11:03PM (#53878077)

      What was that one books solution? The time machine one? Oh right, the vast horde eats the rich.

    • by Xarius ( 691264 )

      CRISPR is already super cheap (in relative terms), it's extremely simple and doesn't require enormous expenditure to set up and run. economies of scale would materialise almost instantly and a minimum wage worker could afford, in a year or two, to give his kids the same advantages rich dickheads do.

      It may actually become an equaliser. The lie that we're all born with the same opportunities could be whittled down some and made real by this.

      • sequencing the human genome cost 100s of thousands of dollars a decade or so ago and it is a few hundred dollars now. I don't see why gene therapy will be expensive.
  • by Anonymous Coward

    All this technology does is reduce the number of aborted fetuses and rejected embryos for the benefit of fighting serious inherited conditions. Pro-lifers, you may now activate to defend this life saving technology at your pleasure.

  • by Iamthecheese ( 1264298 ) on Wednesday February 15, 2017 @11:02PM (#53878073)
    Nature [nature.com] wrote a solid article on the dangers. IMO it's going to lead to some seriously damaged humans before it's closer to perfected. But IMO it will be improved until it's in common use, unless a different technique comes along. In the mean time there's little point to banning it.

    Governments that fight markets never win. If Europe and the US ban this technology that just means progress will continue in other [springer.com] places. [sciencealert.com] And there are other [time.com] reasons than eliminating disease. I could argue the ethics, but that's not the point. Like it or not people are going to do it. We live in the last fully nature-made generation.
    • I actually the "We live in the last fully nature made generation" is an extremely accurate and prescient comment, mind if I borrow it?

    • Governments that fight markets never win.

      That's demonstrably not true. There used to be a healthy market for slaves, for example. Markets are not magical things.

      • Markets are not magical things.

        That's not what libertarians seem to believe.

      • By the time the slave trade was killed in the US, it had already been eliminated in what would have been considered, at the time, to be other "1st world" (industrialized) countries that could have taken advantage of a large number of slaves and competed with the US. You picked that one sentence to criticize, but I think OP's sentiment was really "governments who fight markets, in which there is demand, never win." In the case of the slave trade, the rest of the market and its demand had already been killed.
      • But the slave trade still exists. It's just underground.

  • by Stormy Dragon ( 800799 ) on Wednesday February 15, 2017 @11:06PM (#53878087) Homepage

    Ethicists Advise Caution In Applying CRISPR Gene Editing To Humans

    Only until we edit out their impulse control genes!

  • Just as you cant put the nuclear genie back in the bottle, so too genetic engineering. You may delay it, but eventually the dam will break.

  • Brave new world (Score:5, Insightful)

    by alexo ( 9335 ) on Wednesday February 15, 2017 @11:15PM (#53878119) Journal

    Alpha children wear grey. They work much harder than we do, because they're so frightfully clever. I'm really awfully glad I'm a Beta, because I don't work so hard. And then we are much better than the Gammas and Deltas. Gammas are stupid. They all wear green, and Delta children wear khaki. Oh no, I don't want to play with Delta children. And Epsilons are still worse. They're too stupid to be able to read or write. Besides they wear black, which is such a beastly colour. I'm so glad I'm a Beta.

    • by Shane_Optima ( 4414539 ) on Thursday February 16, 2017 @06:55AM (#53879001) Journal
      The elimination of disease, enhancement of intelligence, etc. are good and desirable things for the vast majority of people. There will be clever arguments, not all of which are entirely wrong, that this is bad or at least highly dangerous for humanity, but outright banning it is much more dangerous. Do you think that all ~200 countries in the world will not only follow suit, but will proactively enforce the law?

      The Brave New World comparison is quite weak. Huxley's world didn't use genetic modification as I recall; they used embryological stimulation in an artificial womb. That was the key to their entire society--no more pregnancies, the government controlled all births. Now tell me, what do rich designer babies (with all of the usual attendant horrors of there being more blond people in the world, oh noes!) have to do with total and complete governmental control of reproduction and child rearing?

      These things are not only unalike; they are opposite. People having control over their bodies and genes and children is directly opposed to the government having control (and/or denying them such control through bans.) There are plenty of real concerns here, but I fear they will be completely drowned out by nonsensical BNW and GATTACA quotes.

      I fear and suspect the western world will end up intentionally abandoning this technological revolution, leaving it up to another power (perhaps the Russians or Chinese) to lead the way, very possibly in a clandestine way known only to the rich ruling elite. I must say, though, it'll be pretty amusing if the Chinese get there first and show us all just how ridiculous those "oh no, too many Nordic-looking people!" arguments are.
      • "with all of the usual attendant horrors of there being more blond people in the world, oh noes!"

        Hair dyes have already solved/caused this 'problem'. Simpler, somewhat less dangerous, readily accessible to most economic strata.

        Hair color ceased to be an attractor for me a long, long time ago.

        • Well, substitute blue eyes then.

          There's actually a side issue here about genetic prevalence, racial attitudes and (especially) ongoing reactionary racial biases. If one can put aside the historical baggage of Aryan theory for a moment, why *wouldn't* we want to save genetically unique features that are possessed by a small *and dwindling* minority of the population, including (but certainly not limited to) red or blond hair, Nordic-pale skin, blue eyes, etc.? Certainly, if you set this alongside the lik
          • by slew ( 2918 )

            Well, substitute blue eyes then.

            Colored contact lenses solved this problem long ago too...

            There's actually a side issue here about genetic prevalence, racial attitudes and (especially) ongoing reactionary racial biases. If one can put aside the historical baggage of Aryan theory for a moment, why *wouldn't* we want to save genetically unique features that are possessed by a small *and dwindling* minority of the population, including (but certainly not limited to) red or blond hair, Nordic-pale skin, blue eyes, etc.?

            I think there is an analogy with fuzzy cute animals are the only ones that make it to the endangered species list, but I'll leave it to others to make the case as to why that is...

          • There is no dwindling population of red hairs etc.
            That is an idiotic claim from popular science magazines that don't understand how genetics works.

            BTW: if you want to know how Aryans really look, I guess you can google that. Aryans as a "tribe" come from the central Perisan areas, our days Iran, the word Iran actually is a simplification of Aryan. Aryans are black haired but surprisingly with a very high percentage of blue eyed people.

            In other words: the Nazi myth about Aryans is even more retarded when you

            • That is an idiotic claim from popular science magazines that don't understand how genetics works.

              It's not true that the expression of recessive genes will dwindle in an environment where there is extensive interbreeding with a much larger number of people with a dominant gene? it's not true that darker haired/eyed people have higher birth rates than those of Nordic complexion?

              Yes yes, I understand that if you are starting from an assumption that neither gene affects (nor is statistically correlated with) survivability or reproductive chances then no gene will be increasing or decreasing in prevalenc

              • Depends what you want to ask, and if you know what 'expression' means.

                Point is: no, the question if a bene is regressive or dominat (outdated terms btw, as both twrms are wrong) is irrelevant for 'heritage'. You simply inherit both and the 'more dominant' is 'more epxressed'. The recessive one is not lost in any way.

                it's not true that darker haired/eyed people have higher birth rates than those of Nordic complexion?
                Only if you want to be pedantic. But as most nordics breed amoung themselves and most 'browns

      • The wealth distribution gap between the rich and the poor is continuously widening. What makes you think that these scientific advancements will be equally available to all members of society?

        This will lead to the inequality between the classes to become entrenched on the genetic level.

        • As a poor person who possesses some modicum of awareness and proclivity for deep thought, I have quite a lot to say on the subject of wealth and class inequality, including the long list of laws that sustain the status quo... but the doom and gloom over this technology is both (mostly) wrong and pointless.

          What makes you think that these scientific advancements will be equally available to all members of society?

          For the same reason that iPhones can be found in significant numbers even amongst the poor--the economics of scale are such that, after an initial break-in period where only the rich can afford it (perhaps

      • horrors of there being more blond people in the world, oh noes!
        Actually for me and plenty of people I know "blonde" is the least desired colour for hair.

        The myth about blonds came up in african, south european, asian countries when Rome tried to conquer Germania.

        I personally prefer any other hair colour over blond, probably red being my favourite. And as a side not: no, blondes usually don't have blond pubic hair but brown or even dark brown like everyone else who is not a black haired.

        I fear and suspect t

  • ...Like the technology itself. Right now, the focus is on using CRISPR to eliminate genetic diseases. Ethically there is no problem with that usage. But if a hipster fad develops for making their children really tall, we will have to call the ethicists back in for a discussion.

    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by Anonymous Coward

      Good luck with that. There are a lot of people for whom ethical considerations only apply to other people.

      • by mmell ( 832646 )
        Rules are for untermenschen, not ubermenschen. Almost universally, laws as well.
      • Good luck with that. There are a lot of people for whom ethical considerations only apply to other people.

        I'm not claiming that ethicists have any power to prevent questionable uses, only that they will give us moral opinions about applications of the tech as they develop.

    • Framing (Score:2, Insightful)

      by Anonymous Coward

      The definition of "disease" has always been somewhat subjective, and I suspect it will become rather more so as technological advances continue. -PCP

  • CRISPR (Score:5, Interesting)

    by backslashdot ( 95548 ) on Wednesday February 15, 2017 @11:28PM (#53878171)

    You people do realize that the CRISPR genes of the type to do gene editing are present in strep pyogenes and also staph aureus? These bacteria, especially staph aureus, are found everywhere. That means that anyone can extract these genes and put them into a plasmid quite easily using technology such as PCR (which can be done with a thermometer, stove, and a cup of ice). The only difficult part is making oligonucleotide sequences -- which are dirt cheap to buy though not trivial for someone to make at home but if I really thought about it I am sure there is a way to do it with just household chemicals and a small lab.

    What I am saying is, if you ban this thing it will do nothing other than prevent its good use. The bad use will still be possible -- although there are tons of much easier and more effective ways to cause harm than genetic engineering -- it's rather sad to watch people get so paranoid about something like this. I mean people it's easier to cure late stage IV cancer and diabetes than it is to do something bad with genetic engineering -- yet there are tons of much easier ways to hurt people.

    • by Anonymous Coward

      Well, duh!

    • You people do realize that the CRISPR genes of the type to do gene editing are present in strep pyogenes and also staph aureus?

      What does that have to do with anything? Is this a reply to some comment or comments? If so, you might have considered posting it as such. As it stands, it looks like you're shaking your fist and ranting at the summary in a way that makes no sense, since it doesn't say anything about gene editing as a weapon. They're specifically addressing the issue of whether using genetic modification to cure diseases is safe. There's no question among mainstream scientists whether it's ethical to create harmful things w

  • Human Gene editing is already happening. In 2016, Dr John Zhang used his spindle nuclear transfer technique to avoid a child being born with Leigh Syndrome. CRISPR may be the greatest health care tool yet.

    CRISPR may be used for vain, nonessential and even suspect purposes. Its a brave new world, get over it.

  • Yeah, just what we need, more government regulation.

    Unless we let corporations edit the human genome, and patent human DNA, we are the enemy of the free market. /s

  • by mentil ( 1748130 ) on Thursday February 16, 2017 @12:53AM (#53878363)

    but could also be used for cosmetic enhancements and lead to permanent, heritable changes in the human species.

    Excuse me if I'm failing to see this as a downside. Instead of repairing heritable diseases for one person, those fixes persist to their descendants as well? Sure in the short term, untested changes could lead to unknown side-effects, but that's obvious and wouldn't justify a broad ban on germline changes. Eventually/soon, germline gene editing will be cheaper than treating these diseases for even one individual, much less them and all their descendants; with socialized medicine, some countries will DEMAND gene editing, once it's cheaper. The moral panic reminds me of that surrounding in-vitro fertilization when it was novel. Remember, right now the standard practice is to do genetic testing on fetuses in the womb, and if any developmental problems are found, it's recommended the pregnancy be aborted; it's not like abortion is controversial or anything, right? To ensure I get modded to oblivion, I present this thought experiment: once inbreeding depression has been genetically eliminated, would people still consider inbreeding morally unacceptable?

    Who really cares about 'cosmetic changes'? What's considered an 'enhancement' varies from culture to culture. If e.g. Japanese want to edit their genes to have wider eyelids rather than getting them surgically widened, sure why not. Is "you are tall because your parents were tall" more comforting than "you are tall because your parents wanted you to be tall"? Do we really want to revive the spectre of 'genetic purity'?

    As for the rich being the only ones with access to this technology, leading to them becoming a master race that the unwashed masses can't compete with, that's nonsense. Consider how quickly the cost of genome sequencing has plummeted in the past 20 years; the same thing will happen with gene editing. Furthermore, consider how many parents in e.g. China are willing to do ANYTHING, including sacrifice their life (e.g. Foxconn suicides), for the sake of their children; many, many parents would be willing to save money for decades, so that before they died, they could afford gene editing for their children, assuring their offspring a better life. A MUCH more likely scenario is that gene editing is outright made illegal in a given country, so only the rich can leave the country to have it done elsewhere; this goes doubly for oppressive countries with restrictions on travel.

    • We can't seem to agree to provide needed drugs worldwide where they can treat or prevent diseases. How are we going to change ourselves to share this technology?

      No, we won't.

  • Let's go for it. (Score:5, Interesting)

    by bdwoolman ( 561635 ) on Thursday February 16, 2017 @01:01AM (#53878377) Homepage

    Once upon a time dissecting people was thought unholy, but renaissance physicians like Vessalius did it anyway, risking anything from excommunication to death. Medical progress has always been hampered from time to time by unfounded pseudoreligeous fears.

    CRISPR is awesome progress. Germline enhancement is clearly the next step. Certainly a generation of smarter stronger humans can do better with things than we have. China will have no compunctions going towards enhancement. We should not allow squeamishness to prevent us from literally making better people. It won't be hard. The bar is not very high.

    • Yeah, one need look only at the status of organ transplants in China to see how this is going to proceed. They loathe the peasantry, there's a strong Confucian paternalism still present, blended with a pragmatic, anything-goes Communist attitudes... and they're big into soft and hard media controls to simply prevent their own people to figure out what's going on.

      And the motives here will be both personal (high ranking party members who want to do this with their own children) and patriotic (improving the
      • I really learned something from your comment. It really put some meat on the bone, Yes, for the reasons you so clearly stated, whatever the Chinese do with gene tech will not be pretty or even handed. One would hope that we can move forward with more decency and with a higher ethical standard... But move forward we must. And quickly.
        • by slew ( 2918 )

          I really learned something from your comment. It really put some meat on the bone, Yes, for the reasons you so clearly stated, whatever the Chinese do with gene tech will not be pretty or even handed. One would hope that we can move forward with more decency and with a higher ethical standard... But move forward we must. And quickly.

          So we aren't going with the lysine contingency route then?

  • by NotQuiteReal ( 608241 ) on Thursday February 16, 2017 @01:07AM (#53878387) Journal
    It's all part of Evolution, right?
  • This may be the only way to keep up with AI.
  • The ethics priests need to take a break. Obviously any cure for any disease or condition has spin off effects that may or may not be considered negative by some people. Suppose for example we find a genetic cure for schizophrenia that persists through out generations. Obviously many people with such a condition would never be born. How the heck can anyone weigh the horrors of that illness against the potential joy or contributions that a schizophrenic might experience or create/ How about manic dep
    • Re:Pointy Hats (Score:5, Interesting)

      by Rande ( 255599 ) on Thursday February 16, 2017 @03:52AM (#53878703) Homepage

      Had one woman on the radio a few month ago worried about a new 99% reliable and non-invasive test for Downs Syndrome because it meant that in future Downs Children and parents would be looked down on as it meant that the child was _chosen_ to live that way.
      So yeah, there are people who would argue that we shouldn't prevent retardation.

      Of course, a lot of this is due to people worried that we'll somehow create a neo-nazi pure white aryan standard for babies, rather than the opposite.
      I hope that gengineering will lead to _more_ diversity. People of every color of the rainbow. The world needs more green and blue people. Colonize the seas with merpeople. Cute little things like cat and dog ears. Tails! Centaurs! Functional hermaphrodites (use whatever damn toilet you want)!
      That's not to say that's the only way to go. I also want cyborgs and uploaded consciousness.

      • by AmiMoJo ( 196126 )

        Had one woman on the radio a few month ago worried about a new 99% reliable and non-invasive test for Downs Syndrome because it meant that in future Downs Children and parents would be looked down on as it meant that the child was _chosen_ to live that way.
        So yeah, there are people who would argue that we shouldn't prevent retardation.

        I'm really interested to explore this, if you don't mind.

        So the only option at the moment is go ahead with the birth or abort. I think the interests of the child are the most important thing to consider. Children with Downs Syndrome do have some kind of life, so I'm not sure we can automatically say that the suffering outweighs what they get from the opportunity to live.

        You seem quite certain that those fetuses should terminated. Could you explain your thoughts behind that assertion?

        I'm genuinely asking bec

        • Precisely. For all the ethical justifications for abortion, I know very few people who would support their mother making that decision for them.

        • by Rande ( 255599 )

          I'm not going to force a woman to terminate - that would be just as wrong as forcing a woman not to terminate.

          A special needs child with intellectual disabilities will cost from ~$1.5million to $3 million in care over his or her lifetime. Unless this cost is picked up by the parents, then it'll be absorbed by the State. This adds up to literally hundreds of billions of dollars that the taxpayer has to fork out for every year.

          So yeah, not impressed when women _choose_ to bring these little burdens on societ

  • The real "ethical debate" should be about whether a group of moralizing busybodies should be allowed to interfere in the reproductive choices of other people.

    Of course, it is a short debate, because the answer is "no".

    It's funny how many of our most contentious issues are actually about people fearing that someone else's (undeserving) kids will out-compete their own.

  • We (humanity) don't even know if diseases ARE diseases from evolution's viewpoint. They may simply be an evolutionary vector, a change on the way to something else. But let's fix evolution for individual humans. And how many times have we seen this cycle? They have a serious concern. They have conferences and write papers. Then they do it anyway, because it is interesting to them.
  • These are wonders beyond what we can conceive but the next generation will be able to learn from their four fathers.
  • by flatulus ( 260854 ) on Thursday February 16, 2017 @11:20AM (#53880123)
    Perhaps this will lead to a fix for stupid.
  • Of course, the most pernicious diseases are those congenital disorders of metabolism that cause you to develop the wrong skin/hair/eye color, or the wrong adult height or weight. At least, that's what the money will say.

  • I am willing to bet that gene editing will lead to more evil humans. Why? The rich that could afford and want to edit genes are going to want to give their kids the things they admire.

    What they admire is easy to guess regardless of decade we are in... they'll want their kids to be like them but "better", and most rich people run businesses. They'll want height, competitive drive, greed (they won't call it greed), alpha dog attitudes, and other qualities that lead to "being a better business person". And of

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