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Gene editing tech raises ethical concerns

More than 50,000 known human genetic maladies exist, most of which have few treatments or cures. A new gene editing technique called Adenine Base Editing (ABE), developed by Broad Institute of Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, could be the next step toward change.

ABE not only excises unwanted genetic code, but also replace base pairs with other base pairs. In combination with CRISPR Cas-9 technology, this tool could, in theory, fix genetic mistakes for about 15,000 illnesses.

However, Brian Greuel, John Brown University chair of natural science and professor of biology, has his own reservations about gene editing research. Greuel, who is personally affected by genetic disorders through his grandson, committs a lifetime of research to asking basic questions about the human genome.

“I have no problems whatsoever using that technology on non-humans provided it has a constructive use,” Greuel said. “Being able to alter specific genes at specific locations could have tremendous benefit for us.”

Joel Funk, JBU assistant professor of biology, concurs, with some consideration on how his faith interacts with genetic modification. “I think it has the potential to alleviate human suffering,” Funk said. “You could justify that somehow, if one believes mutations are the result of the fall—although I’m not really sure I do—then we are counteracting the effects of the fall. I’m not sure about that.”

Greuel’s enthusiasm for developing gene therapy technology comes with a caveat. “My grandson has a genetic disorder, and there’s no way to deliver the molecular machinery to every cell to bring about a cure,” Greuel said.

Greuel recognizes various risks associated with gene editing. Among them is the inability for gene therapy to be administered to the trillions of cells comprising the whole body without raising serious ethical questions. “You really have to think about doing it in vitro. And in vitro has its own set of problems. You have to be willing to sacrifice those embryos that don’t get the set of corrections.”

Additionally, each instance of genetic modification introduces the risk of unintended abnormalities into the genome. These “off-target effects,” Greuel described, which “happen at a certain frequency […]actually makes things worse for an individual.” This would undermine the very reason for gene therapy.

The frequency, according to Scientific American, produces undesired effects less than 0.1 percent of the time. However, out of approximately 3 billion base pairs in the human genome, 0.1 percent can incur substantial alterations.

Greuel suggests that technological legislators and the scientific community will eventually acknowledge a “point of acceptable risk,” where modification will become accepted and embraced.

Legislators and bioethicists have yet to define a point of acceptable risk, and furthermore, the boundary between gene therapy and genetic modification. “I have Christian friends who are bioethicists who have no problems whatsoever with the idea of using this technology in human beings.”

Many in the scientific and religious communities are asking at what point human beings begin to play God with their own genetic make-up.

“There’s a hubris that we are trying to control the course of our own evolution,” Greuel noted. “What does human performance and achievement mean? Are we comparing notes on our enhancement?”

Eventually, Funk suggested, gene editing will become easily understood and accessible to the masses, potentially allowing people without regard for morals or ethical limitations to tamper with the human genome—or worse, develop genetically engineered bio-weapons.

“As we approach this technology, we need to develop ways of being morally and ethically cautious about it,” Funk cautioned. “If we make genes too easy to change, there might be people without ethical boundaries who would try to change things.”

“Some of the biological weapons we’ve been concerned about in the past, pathogens, have been engineered by making slight changes in microbes and other prokaryotic organisms,” Funk said. “But now, with new gene editing technology, we could also make changes to eukaryotic organisms, fungi and protozoa, that could be changed to be more infectious.”

Funk imagines that much of what keeps those unscrupulous bio-engineers at bay is the risk of creating weaponry to which they are also exposed.

“I think some of what prevents that from happening is that, there is some hesitancy within rogue persons and states because the developers of those biological weapons are also exposed to the pathogens themselves,” Funk said.

Another consideration is the role genetic modification will play in giving individuals certain performance advantages over others. Greuel asked, “What would that do to sports if everyone was coming in with gene modifications like performance enhancing drugs to get an unfair advantage?”

The issue isn’t exclusive to the world of sports. For those too poor to afford genetic modification, Greuel observes, “It’s going to raise the gap between the haves and the have-nots.”

Just as it sparks Greuel and Funk’s imagination, genetic modification sparks the imagination of the scientific community. “It poses exciting prospects for use in other species, and I would consider using that technology for myself, using other species,” Greuel mused. “It provides an enormous experimental potential.”