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Human genetic engineering is the alteration of a human's genotype, or inherited genetic information, to make changes to their phenotype, or observable trait. The goal of this alteration depends on the type of genetic engineering process: Somatic or Germline. The goals of Somatic genetic engineering are normally limited to choosing phenotypes that do not produce hereditary disease or aid in combating it, while the Germline process has the potential to change physical traits altogether. Research has shown, that of these two types of engineering, Somatic is the more ethical option, as it only affects the one individual, whereas Germline would change the genes entirely, which could be transfered to any and all offspring. The potential consequences of future generations being affected by this form of engineering places Somatic at the forefront. This article provides a background of human genetic engineering and gene therapy as well as the ethics and future involved in making this medical advancement a viable option.
Since the beginning of civilization, humankind has sought to live as long as possible by attempting to remove the obstacle of sickness and disease. As early as 3000 B.C, humans created medicine to cure ailments that would cut our lives short or cripple our way of life (Arab). When medicine was not enough, the first surgery was performed in 2750 B.C, as documented in the “Edwin Smith Papyrus.” The first vaccination was given by Louis Pasteur in 1885 to protect against contraction of the Rabies virus in a boy who had been bitten by a dog, and with this knowledge of vaccines, Americans virtually eliminated the crippling disease of Polio (Boeree). Radiation and chemotherapy are now used to thwart and remove cancer, and while the accuracy and ability to pinpoint the origins of cancer is still inefficient, research is improving the methods and technology every day. Those who develop ways to keep humans alive and healthy all come from different backgrounds and even different time periods. However what the Egyptian doctors, Louis Pasteur, and every pioneer of medical technology have in common, is the present knowledge of current methods keeping humanity healthy are not enough. Today, geneticists are heeding this call of creating longer lives with gene therapy, altering defective genes and creating missing ones to combat hereditary birth defects that prove fatal even if treated with the best conventional medicines and treatments.
While the idea of providing people with longer lives is old, the use of genetics as an answer is relatively new. The first treatment ever performed was in 1990, when researchers at the U.S. National Institutes of Health performed the first gene therapy procedure on four-year old Ashanti DeSilva (Coutts). Ashanti was born with a rare genetic disease called Severe Combined Immune Deficiency, or SCID. This disease crippled her immune system, making her vulnerable to virtually every germ. Children with this illness usually develop complicated infections and rarely survive into their adult lives. With this existence, they are usually confined to a “bubble-boy-like” life, almost prohibited contact with people outside their families while battling illness with massive amounts of antibiotics (Coutts). Ashanti’s gene therapy has allowed her to enroll and attend school and get proper immunization for other life threatening diseases. While this is the first approved use of gene therapy, the development and argument of altering genes most likely dates back to 1967 when Marshall Nirenberg, a Nobel prize winner, wrote papers that described the programming of cells, and the underlying benefits and dangers associated with it. Surprisingly, the U.S government has been a proponent of gene therapy since it was called upon by the National Council of Churches, the Synagogue Council of America and the United States Catholic Conference in 1981 to address it’s ethical standpoint on the matter (Gene Therapy History). The President's commission for the Study of Ethical Problems in Medicine and Biomedical and Behavioral Research released a study called “Splicing Life” in 1982. In this publication, the President's commission largely defended the expansion and development of gene therapy research. This document also responded to the concern that scientists were playing God, and ultimately concluded that people can distinguish between acceptable and unacceptable consequences of gene therapy research. Another influential paper published by the U.S. Office of Technology was a one titled “Human Gene Therapy” in 1984, which stressed the difference between somatic and germ-line gene therapy, which will be later discussed in further detail. More recently, debate and further recognition from the U.S government on the topic of human genetic engineering also involves analyzing aspects relating to fetal tissue research, which lead it to become entangled, and ultimately lost, in abortion politics (Gene Therapy History).
While human genetic engineering altogether faces many ethical concerns, ranging from the theological to the secular—even questioning the purpose of genetic alteration itself—there are advantages to its careful and selective pursuit.
General Ethical Issues
The theological debate holds the ideal that tampering with human DNA is “playing the role of God” on the basis that life is sacred and should not be altered by humans for their own gain. This debate holds the premise that a higher entity or creator, in fact, exists, and has a will toward all things that have been manifested through this creator. It is said that genetic engineering goes against the will of aforementioned creator. A counter argument would suggest that the creator’s will intended for human beings to have their own free will, through which they can create technologies and alter nature. Therefore, the creator’s will allows humans the free will to perform such practices with the technologies they set out to create (Koepsell 6).
The secular argument holds that the dignity of a species must be upheld as per its current evolutionary state, unmodified by human hands. Defining “dignity” becomes the opposition’s basis of rebuttal; “[w]here is the dignity in Lesch-Nyhan syndrome, a genetic disorder that results in uncontrolled self-mutilation?” (Koepsell 8). The counter argument continues that it would be more dignified to use what technologies humans currently have at their disposal to limit the suffering of those who were otherwise granted unfortunate life-altering circumstances upon birth. Technology, as the opposition notes, allows humans to “thrive in climates we otherwise could not survive,” and dares to find a lack of dignity in overcoming natural disadvantages (Koepsell 8).
The reason an individual pursues genetic engineering draws attention as well; is it intended to be therapeutic or will it be used as an enhancement procedure? Therapeutic genetic engineering looks to correct a genetic dysfunction or a disease a certain individual may have been afflicted with since birth, such as spina bifida or cystic fibrosis. This procedure is typically practiced with Somatic genetic engineering. Somatic genetic engineering “targets the genes in specific organs and tissues of the body of a single existing person without affecting genes in their eggs or sperm” (Association of Reproductive Health Professionals). It can be seen as a “DNA as a drug” therapy, similar to other pharmaceutical treatments, wherein the treatment can, over time, slowly heal the patient of genetic disorders they may have had since birth; better yet, the treatment ends with the patient—the effects do not get passed down to later generations (Mauron). This procedure is much safer and much more ethically responsible based on the locality of consequences in respect to Germline genetic engineering.
In enhancement genetic engineering, the goal is “to produce a healthier, smarter, more capable, more robust and longer-lived human individual” (Grey). However, it is difficult to draw a clear dividing line between what is a fault, dysfunction, or disease from a personal genetic preference. Defining what a disease, a dysfunction or even normality is, ultimately leads to a gray-area, where special cases may arise that prevent a clear cut answer from clarifying whether the genetic modification is therapeutic or enhancement (Grey). “Members of a deaf community might want their offspring to be sensorily ‘normal’ by their standards, i.e. deaf” (Grey). While both techniques can be used to accomplish enhancement treatment, the procedure is often paired with Germline genetic engineering—a technique under heavy scrutiny.
Germline Ethical Issues
Germline genetic engineering is the genetic modification procedure that has serious consequences. It targets the genes in the eggs, sperm, or very early embryos. “The alterations affect every cell in the body of the resulting individual, and are passed on to all future generations” (Association of Reproductive Health Professionals). There are several ethical concerns over this practice. With Germline engineering affecting all future generations of offspring, even a noble cause to eliminate an eminent “disease” in one individual could lead to unexpected consequences in the generations to come. The foresight required by this procedure to ensure future offspring are not put at risk because of this modification is simply unattainable. Additionally, it’s difficult to foresee how the removal of such genes, even though they express harmful effects in most cases, could influence the human gene pool for generations to come—ultimately diminishing the diversity of the human gene pool. The opposing argument holds that the “biological processes and products that have evolved over a geological time scale have proved their robustness. They come with the quality assurance of billions of years of testing under searching conditions” (Grey).
Even further, this procedure would be affecting non-consenting individuals—the future generations of offspring—who have no control over the choices of their own futures (Mauron). Germline engineering involves invasive treatments on human embryos—this is how the procedure is completed. There is opposition to this treatment wherein the argument lies with upholding the rights of the embryo and soon to be human. However, due to the moral plurality of our society, there is debate concerning when a human embryo actually attains legally protected rights, and thus, leaves the door open for the Germline engineering debate (Mauron).
As human genetic engineering is only in the beginning stages, it’s hard to predict precisely what the future has in store. Despite that unknown future, there are many advancements that would come from both Somatic and Germline engineering, as well as some detriments.
The most promising area of those advancements is in the field of medicine, as most diseases are associated with genetics. One of the main benefits of genetic engineering, is that it would allow for the creation of bacteria proteins which would speed up the healing process. Proteins circulate throughout the body and report to various glands, such as telling it how many white blood cells it should make, whether bone density and muscle mass should be increased or decreased, or how fast it should grow hair. The genes that regulate the production of these proteins can be inserted in bacteria, which would then show the bacteria how to make identical proteins. The detriment to these bacteria-made proteins is that the process involved in making them could be easily abused. For example, people, such as athletes could use it to increase their muscle masses as a way to get more strength and governments could use it to enhance their soldiers. Also, as it hasn't been done before, the long-term physical effects are unknown and could be potentially harmful, so extensive testing would have to be done (Future of Genetic Engineering).
"Scientists change the genes in living cells by putting the desired 'new' gene into a little virus-like organism which is allowed to get into your cells and which inserts the new gene into the cell along with the 'old' genes" ("Human Cloning and Genetic Modification").
Video - Designing Humanity - Genetic Engineering:
Germline vs. Somatic
Many genetic problems, such as severe combined immunodeficiency, cystic fibrosis, disease, and Alzheimer's could be cured through genetic engineering, as it would either fix or replace the missing genes. Unlike Germline, Somatic engineering only alters the cells in the body, so it has no effect on reproductive cells or future offspring. This largest benefit of this type of engineering is that it would allow for a fetus with a genetic disorder to be fixed while it was still in the womb, therefore parents would not have to worry if their child was going to be heathy. Although Germline engineering would allow this as well, it would not just fix the disorder, it would eliminate it. The problem with that is it could lead to children being designed before they are put in the womb, as the genes would not be fixed, but changed entirely. It is likely this would result in a society devoid of human diversity and full of genetic discrimination, as the most desirable body type, skin, hair and eye colors would be chosen. Those with money would have the means to design their own children, as opposed to having them naturally, which would result in a separation of classes from those who could not. It is likely that the genetically superior children would “be given the best jobs, the highest salaries, and the greatest chance to succeed in life” resulting in further discrimination (Perriman).
In a world with Somatic engineering, the diseases and problems humans currently suffer from would be fixed, but their genetic makeup would not be changed, and it wouldn’t affect future generations; humans would still be able to retain their individuality and diversity. A world with Germline engineering, may start off like a Somatic one, but it would end up noticeably different. Diseases and genetic disorders would be fixed, but because Germline engineering affects the cells of the reproductive system, the repercussions could not be foreseen. As the cells began to change, evolution would take over, which would have an unpredictable affect on future generations (Jute).
Video - Future of Genetic Engineering by Dr. Patrick Dixon:
Of the two types of genetic engineering, Somatic would be the safer and more ethical way to approach it, as it has the most easily viable outcomes, whereas Germline could become quite unethical with designer children, and have unpredictable outcomes. In any aspect, regardless of whether or not these types of genetic engineering begin being practiced, they will first have to overcome the moral and ethical obstacles before them. But if the past is any example of what advancements humans are capable of, then human genetic engineering is not far off.
Arab, Sameh M. "Medicine in Ancient Egypt 1." Arab World Books. Web. 15 Nov. 2010.
Boeree, George. "Early Medicine and Physiology." 2002. Web. 3 Nov. 2010.
Coutts, Mary C. "Human Gene Therapy." Georgetown University Bioethics Research Library. 14 Mar. 1994. Web. 03 Nov. 2010.
"Future of Genetic Engineering.” Web. Online Posting. Web. 30 October 2010.
"Gene Therapy History." The Medical News. Web. 3 Nov. 2010.
Grey, William. "The Ethics of Human Genetic Engineering." Australian BiologistMar. 1996: 50-56. The University of Queensland Australia. Web. 15 Nov. 2010.
“Human Cloning and Genetic Modification.” Association of Reproductive Health Professionals. Web. 30 October 2010.
Jute, Izra. “Advantages and disadvantages of genetic engineering.” Helium. Web. 30 October 2010.
Koepsell, David. The Ethics of Genetic Engineering. Washington, D.C.: Center of Inquiry, Aug. 2007. PDF.
Mauron, Alex. "Ethical Aspects of Gene Therapy." Geneva Foundation for Medical Education and Research. 4 Sept. 2008. Web. 15 Nov. 2010.
Perriman, Symon. "GATTACA: The Future of Genetic Engineering?" GATTACA: The Future of Genetic Engineering. Web. 30 October 2010.