Today, when you go out a date, you might tell a lover-to-be about your hobbies and life goals. You might eventually disclose family drama, bad habits or previous failed relationships. In the future, might you also have to fess up whether your genome has been edited? Imagine how that conversation might go:
Date: I went to Comic Con last year and was amazed by all the X-Men wannabes.
You: Funny story. My genes were modified to make me a stronger, healthier human. That sorts of makes me an X-Man, right? If we ever reproduce, we'll have X-Babies.
The possibility of that scenario was raised this week during the second day of the International Summit on Human Gene Editing, a meeting of experts from around the world to discuss the merits, limitations and societal risks and benefits of gene editing—a variety of molecular tools that allow scientists to make changes in DNA. Right now, the most widely discussed application of these technologies is treating diseases, not to augment our natural abilities—which means the X-Men scenario is at least decades away.
But the question brings up an important point about how gene editing will affect our everyday lives and our relationships with people. How will genetically modified humans fit into our world?
"There are these social implications that we haven't even begun to think about," said Barbara Evans, the director of the Center on Biotechnology & Law at the University of Houston, during the Summit. "[Gene editing] really affects many of our social norms….It requires a lot of thinking."
Genetic editing tools aren't just research-lab curiosities anymore. At the forefront of all the discussions is a new technique called CRISPR. Short for "clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats," CRISPR allows scientists to swap a gene out for another. It's like the genetic version of the cut-and-paste function. Scientists identify the part of the DNA they want to delete and then molecularly “highlight” it and replace it with the desired gene. Scientists and some patients are excited about the possibility of using CRISPR and other gene-editing tools to treat diseases caused by faulty genes.
For instance, Editas Medicine wants to launch a clinical trial to use CRISPR to treat a rare form of blindness. Scientists are turning to other gene-editing techniques to tackle cancer and HIV. So far, these genetic modifications have been limited to somatic cells. That means that any changes made to a person's DNA code would die with them. They wouldn't be passed on to future generations.
But in April, a group in China used CRISPR to reprogram human embryos and remove genes that would cause a blood disease. That research, making the sci-fi concept of "designer babies" more feasible, has further fueled ongoing discussions surrounding the ethics of using CRISPR on humans. Had the embryos developed, those babies might have grown up to reproduce and make babies of their own. These would also carry their parent's CRISPR-ed genes.
That brings us back to the question raised at the Summit. Would you want to know if your partner's genes weren't all "natural"? Today, there's a heated debate over the labeling of genetically modified foods. Will the same be true for the genetically modified humans of the future?
As with any emerging technology, scientists don't fully understand the long-term implications of CRISPR, which makes weighing the risks and balances difficult—a point discussed at the Summit. That's the root of some of these questions.
Right now, there isn't consensus among researchers about whether CRISPR is safe. Some warn about unforeseen genetic effects called "off target" mutations, meaning that once inside the cell, the CRISPR system mistakenly edits out extra DNA it wasn't supposed to. If those off target changes are made in the so-called germline—reproductive cells, like eggs and sperm, or early embryos—those would be passed down to future generations too. How that would affect humans, and human evolution, is uncertain.
Some argue that CRISPR is fast becoming more accurate, and therefore safer. And that it's unethical to not do anything about the diseases plaguing the world. A paper published in the journal Science by MIT researchers this week has made the technique more precise, minimizing off-target effects. George Church—one of the first to publish academic papers in this field—thinks the danger is minimal. Still, questions about safety are at the forefront of public and scientific discussions.
The establishment of national and international guidelines for gene editing, as well as an open discussion with the public, will help assuage some of these worries. What that looks like, though, is yet to be determined. Some have called for an outright ban of the technology, while others, like University of Manchester bioethicist John Harris, argue that gene editing is in humanity's best interest.
Evans, of the University of Houston, agrees: "You don’t want to ban the basic research that would resolve the uncertainty," she said. "That’s unwise."
Realistically, an all-out ban is unlikely to happen. There's just way too much money behind this. China has spent $300 million in research related to human embryos, stem cells and gene editing in the last five years, according to statistics discussed by Zhihong Xu, a representative from the Chinese Academy of Sciences. MIT and Berkeley are in the middle of a patent war over who owns the CRISPR technology.
Big companies like Novartis, AstraZeneca and GlaxoSmithKline have invested tens of millions in CRISPR. Next week in the U.K., there's another CRISPR summit happening—this one focused on how the pharmaceutical industry can harness the technology for drug discovery. AstraZeneca is hosting a CRISPR conference of its own, together with The Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute, in January.
As experts at the Summit said, people tried to ban cloning, and those efforts failed. That means that CRISPR and other gene-editing tools will more likely than not be part of our future. Before you start panicking about the dawn of GMP, we should remember that CRISPR is likely only to be useful for diseases that are caused by a single faulty gene, like sickle cell anemia or Huntington's disease. Human ailments, like heart disease, autism, schizophrenia, and Parkinson's, are the manifestation of many genes and their interactions with the environment. Right now, scientists just don't understand that interplay well enough to make informed adjustments to the genetic code. That means that in the near future, it's unlikely that scientists will go rogue and edit tens or even hundreds of genes at once in an attempt to cure a disease.
Daniela Hernandez is a senior writer at Fusion. She likes science, robots, pugs, and coffee.