Do you remember this line from the movie “Jurassic Park”: “Your scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could, they didn’t stop to think if they should”?
The need for caution in science is not limited to a movie about the possible cloning of dinosaurs. A group of scientists published in the journal Nature have called for a moratorium on, and strict rules to govern, a hot ethical issue: editing of the human genome at the reproductive cell stage.
Scientists can now snip out specific genes in human embryos, sperm or eggs, and replace them with other genes. In theory, doing so could free some people from ailments caused by single-gene anomalies.
But there’s the very real potential for peril. The technology is sometimes imprecise, and the wrong gene can be impacted. There’s also the possibility of unforeseen consequences. A scientist in China, for example, has claimed he helped make two babies that he says are now genetically modified to be more resistant to HIV. Other scientists say the modification may increase the babies’ vulnerability to complications and death from other viruses, including the flu.
Another danger is that these alterations can be passed to future generations. Imagine one day humans who are resistant to HIV but are in greater danger of dying from the flu or other viruses.
Some nations are considering outlawing gene editing altogether, while others may adopt rules such as that it can be used only when medically essential for a grave condition without a cure.
Clearly, the stakes are high. Scientists recognize this and are calling for their colleagues to tread lightly — for the sake of our species.