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Featured First Human Embryos Edited in U.S.

  1. Aug 5, 2017 #21

    Ygggdrasil

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    Sure, as the Nature news piece I linked to mentioned, there is evidence for both genetic and environmental factors playing a factor in myopia (as in the case of most traits). For example, the piece cites twin studies from the 1960s showing that myopia has a genetic component. However, there is also strong evidence for an environmental component. For example:
    These observational studies are backed up by more recent randomized clinical trials experiments where increasing the time spent outdoors lessened the incidence of myopia in children compared to a control group (see the Nature piece for a more detailed description of the experiments). So, in some populations (such as the Navajo), genetics will the be primary cause of myopia, but for many other populations, environmental effects seem to be a major factor.

    Both are very good points. As I mentioned previously, I bring these arguments up mostly as a devil's advocate to illustrate some of the important ethical questions that others have brought up with regard to germline gene editing. I have no problem with research on embryos (for example, in the future, cloning an individual's cells to generate genetically identical embryonic stem cells for clinical uses). However, when generating embryos that will become a person, I think scientists and physicians have a responsibility to exercise caution in performing any procedures that carry risks of harming the embryo. While embryos do not have personhood under law, embryos destined for implantation probably should have some sets of rights to consider. Clinical research operates on the principle of informed consent, though we recognize that this is not always possible (e.g. in the case of research on children). Thus, when the subject cannot give informed consent, special precautions should be taken to manage the risks involved (e.g. having an Institutional Review Board scrutinize the proposed procedures with the interests of the unborn children in mind).
     
  2. Aug 6, 2017 #22

    Fervent Freyja

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    Dirac, I understand your fears, but I also have faith in science and that the people who study it will protect society.

    My little brother is 25 years old and has stage C right and left-sided heart failure with moderately severe COPD, which were caused by his individual genetic syndrome. When will he die? Will it really be within the next 10 years? I love who he is, but I don't want him to die, but what if the mutation in his NSD1 gene, normally responsible for producing a single protein that turns on and off a few genes that mainly affect growth and development, could have been altered/replaced/improved? How could that have changed who he is, when he already makes a little from his other copy, just not enough of it on this one? He really wants a permit to drive, but his intellectual disability and seizures bar him. Will he ever really be apart of college football, find love, or have a child- the things he talks about, before he dies? Could he have had that otherwise? I don't want to change who he is, but I do want him to have what he wants: simple opportunities that are given to most humans, so much that he has been denied. And I want him to live. I see nothing but goodness in genetic engineering for future people.

    All I needed to do was help him make more histones. When will he die?
     
  3. Aug 6, 2017 #23
    Respectfully, I disagree. What stops someone from saying that average intelligence, height, attractiveness, etc. are "broken" traits, and that a baby should not be born with them? What is to stop this from being a method to fix all "imperfect" traits that people have.

    Perfect humans due to genetic modifications... that reminds me of something...
    Exactly! Once you can "fix" babies with heart problems, you can fix babies with intellectual problems, or height problems. IMO, that is just wrong.
     
  4. Aug 6, 2017 #24
    While I appreciate your trust in scientists, IMO that trust is misplaced. I don't mean this in a bad way, of course, as someone who wants to be a scientist, but here's a reminder of some of the things scientists have given us:
    -Nuclear weapons
    -Biological weapons
    -Chemical weapons

    What's next? An army of genetically modified humans?

    Governments are never afraid to have scientists go one step too far and use technology that should never have been used to acquire power. If some government wants the smartest and strongest people in the world, can you say for certainty that they won't use science to achieve that goal?
     
  5. Aug 6, 2017 #25

    mfb

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    Avoiding life-threatening conditions is wrong? That is an easy, clear distinction: Is the rare genetic condition likely to kill the person? If yes, I support removing it from embryos, with the potential to remove it from the gene pool completely over time.

    We fix things all the time. Most of the medical sector is about fixing things. Do you want to get rid of modern medicine? If not, where exactly do you see the difference? If yes, I think further discussion is pointless.
    Science lead to the discovery/invention of some things that can be used to kill others. How exactly is this related to this topic?
    Do you also fear an army of humans with glasses?
     
  6. Aug 6, 2017 #26

    Ygggdrasil

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    Current guidelines around gene editing deal with this problem by limiting gene edits to only those introducing alleles already prevalent in the population. This restriction is also good from a safety perspective since there is much less risk when introducing common alleles to an embryo than when working with very rare alleles (such as ones that could potentially protect against Alzheimer's or heart disease).

    The genetics of the heart problem associated with the MYBPC2 mutation are very well known. At the moment, the genetics of traits like intelligence and height are not well understood enough for us to be able to reliably enhance these traits through gene editing.

    Yet the same technologies have also given us nuclear energy, vaccines, and fertilizers. Regarding the last point, here's a nice piece from Radiolab about Fritz Haber, whose Nobel-prize winning work on the Haber-Bosch process for synthesizing ammonia allowed the world to feed itself, but who also helped the Nazis develop chemical weapons:
    http://www.radiolab.org/story/180132-how-do-you-solve-problem-fritz-haber/

    Technologies can do either good or evil. I think it's better to regulate the people using the technologies than to ban the technologies altogether.
     
  7. Aug 6, 2017 #27

    BillTre

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    This technology is not being developed in a vacuum.

    Many more experiments (probably thousands) are being done on lots of other animals and on lots of genes that you have probably never heard about.
    This is creating an increasing amount of knowledge about possible direct and indirect effects of changing particular genes in different situations. Although not all of this is directly related to human genome manipulation, any realistic changes that might be made in the near future would not be done in such a blind manner as it is often portrayed.

    Furthermore, the situations where this might first be tried, would be more extreme life threatening cases, where inaction also carries negative consequences.

    Personal examples can be useful.
    I can think of several (currently ill-defined) things in my own genome that might be worth changing:
    1. Whatever underlies my needing to use glasses after 50 years old (not such a big deal since glasses work well).
    2. My autoimmune disease that has killed off my thyroid gland (I now take artificial thyroxin). This may be a genetically inherited condition (or predisposition) since my Mom, one of my sisters, and another relative had this. Along with that my sister got thyroid cancer which may or may not be linked. This is a condition that I would like to be able to eliminate form the line of my progeny going down through future generations.
    3. My allergies (very annoying and very likely genetically inherited).
    4. Color blindness (from my wife's side of the family), which prevented my some (who inherited it) from being a Navy or Air Force flier.
    For these examples, my order of priorities (based on my own perceived life impact) would be: 2, 3, 4, 1.
    Taking any action on this ordering, in the real world, would then be influenced by lots of other issues (some technical) including:
    • how much knowledge is there on the underlying causative genetics,
    • what is know about the genes influence on other biological aspects in the body,
    • how well can the changes be made (and potentially unmade),
    • there are probably others that a more careful consideration would reveal (@Ygggdrasil probably could fill in more!).
    In the long run (in a Science Fictiony way), as more knowledge and technical capability is developed, both greater and more subtle effects could be more confidently engineered into people, but that would probably take longer that films like Blade Runner would have you believe.
     
  8. Aug 6, 2017 #28

    Ygggdrasil

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    Relating to this point, I posted a link to a recent analysis from researchers at Stanford supporting your concern: https://www.physicsforums.com/threads/omnigenetic-model-for-complex-traits.922051/

    Essentially, they hypothesize that all genes expressed inside a cell are interconnected in their function such that changing one gene may have many unintended consequences on a variety of different traits. Definitely cause for concern when considering altering the human genome.

    While we may be have the technology very soon to safely edit genes in human embryos, it may be a while before we know what genes to edit in order to safely change some of the traits @BillTre cares about.
     
  9. Aug 6, 2017 #29
    I do support avoiding life-threatening conditions. But at what cost? This is allowing the development of a technology that could potentially produce a world like that in GATTACA. You may say that it is not going to happen-- but 200 years ago the same thing could be said about multiple countries having an arsenal that is capable of single-handedly blowing up the world ten times.
    The development of glasses technology does not have nearly the serious consequences that genetic engineering could have.
    Read what I wrote after that-- it explains why it is related. Just like how America and Russia took science too far in developing a nuclear arsenal that can blow up the world ten times, what stops some government from deciding to make a new generation of hyperintellegent humans with increased muscle strength in order to win a war/assume more power? That's what we could be opening the door up to here.

    Although, there is then this
    which is wonderful in theory. We have a ban on the use of chemical weapons too. That doesn't stop a rogue government from using them. Knowing the world as it is, if one country did what I mentioned above, then other countries would follow suit in order to compete. How long after that does GATTACA start happening?
    I understand this, too. However, in my opinion, we must weigh out the pros and cons. While there are a lot of life-saving things this technology can provide, we must ask ourselves if the possible consequences (i.e. something like GATTACA or an international race on who can breed the best hyperintellegent super-strong human army to fight in wars) are worth it.

    Call me crazy for thinking of those as possibilities, but crazier things have happened.
     
  10. Aug 6, 2017 #30

    Ygggdrasil

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    Nuclear weapons. See sometimes two wrongs do make a right :)
     
  11. Aug 6, 2017 #31
    But we have nuclear plants that produce lots of energy and don't produce greenhouse gases, and also the knowledge that made nuclear weapons some day will perhaps produce fusion nuclear plants, which would mean limitless clean and cheap energy for everyone. Knowledge and science are just tools, you can use a hammer to build a house, and you can also use it to bang on someones head. We shouldn't stop the progress in science just because there is danger of getting it to the wrong hands, we must just do it with caution and responsibility, because this progress might bring solution for so many problems. Otherwise, how many research areas should we cut just because there is danger?

    If science is done for the pursuit of progress and under a strong ethical basis, we must go ahead. But we must also be certain on doing it under those lines, otherwise it will be used as a tool of those in power to preserve the statu quo and expand their areas of domination. Ethics must be important for a scientist if he doesn't want his research to be used against humanity. And also politics, because politics is the game of power and powerful people, and at the last, many times we are just working for those people while we don't even realize of it. And I really wouldn't want to wake up one day to see that something I did is being used to kill people somewhere around the world. And you don't even have to work on genetics, nor nuclear research to serve to those ends! there are so many ways to contribute to it that I can't even imagine.
     
    Last edited: Aug 6, 2017
  12. Aug 6, 2017 #32
    A fair point, though I still think every situation must be judged. As I said in post 29, the pros and cons must be judged. And that judgement process is tricky; for me, it is very fuzzy around nuclear weapons/nuclear power, chemical weapons/fertilizer and biological weapons/vaccines-- with those I don't know how the pros and cons weigh out (although hindsight is 20/20). However, with genetic engineering I see more of a clear line: yes, it can save many lives, but, while every life is precious and we should do what we can for all of them, I fear that the possible imminent threats to our entire society and world that genetic engineering poses are just too much.

    Again, I completely see where you all are coming from, but I think negative implications need to be considered far more thoroughly before further research on this continues.
     
  13. Aug 6, 2017 #33
    This thread is getting interesting. It really is one of the quintessential-form ethics debates.

    I think Ygggdrasil hit on the main point here...

    My undergraduate degree is in biology. I was fascinated with it. I had a molecular biology teacher in 1990 who said that he started out as a physicist but he switched to biology because he thought the biophysics of energy and metabolic cycles of the cell were much more interesting and complex than the solid state physics he was doing at the time.

    And that's the point. They are complex. Very complex. There's no magic bullet, like mfb alluded to..

    It doesn't work like that. "Most" everything in cellular and systems biology is connected in a very complicated way. Embryos form the body plan initially with homeobox genes and then the cells further differentiate down the line. But this is a complex orchestration that is highly reliant on certain genes being differentiated at certain times and expressing transcription factors that orchestrate the differentiation of other cells, etc. etc. This is the science of "Evo-devo" and relates the epigentic development of the organism, which also involves the environmental conditions the organism is developing in. For the layperson, Sean "B." Carroll (not the popular physicist) has a great book on the subject called "Endless forms most beautiful."

    https://www.amazon.com/Endless-Forms-Most-Beautiful-Science/dp/0393327795

    So, there's two things going on here. The first is how we deal with say, nearsightedness, and other genetic anamolies that require some sort of "correctedness," such as Steven Hawking (ALS) with a wheelchair, for these individuals to survive and reproduce in the gene pool. The other is how do we find the gene(s) that cause these maladies and how do we eradicate them in vitro before we plant the zygote in the womb? The answer is that, in the first case, we are "artificially selecting" a genetic blood line by operating on a phenotype whereas in the second case were doing it by operating on a genotype.

    If you are lumping those two together as the same thing in your ethics assessment of the theme of this thread, please think a little more about that..
     
    Last edited: Aug 6, 2017
  14. Aug 6, 2017 #34

    Fervent Freyja

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    You are dealing with a common bias called focalism, among others, regarding this topic. You may simply need to spend a few more years learning before you truly understand the real purpose and benefits that science has given us.
     
  15. Aug 7, 2017 #35

    mfb

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    As Ygggdrasil mentioned already, it is not. It is one step such a technology would need, but that also applies to computers, for example.
    Did stopping a research branch because you don't like what it could find out ever work?
    While we don't have an alternate history for direct comparison, nuclear weapons probably reduced the number of casualties of the second world war, and without them the Cold War might have become WW 3. No countries with nuclear weapons fought a war against each other, and we live in the most peaceful time of human history.
    And then we have nuclear power, of course. Without nuclear power we would burn more coal, leading to millions of additional deaths and a faster climate change.

    Fertilizer feeds billions. We went from "nearly everyone is extremely poor and famines are widespread" to a world where extreme poverty and famines are very rare, and fertilizer had a big contribution to it.

    How many have been killed by biological weapons?
    Smallpox alone killed millions every year.
    I don't see how this is related to my point of the effect of well-studied, single point mutations leading to potentially lethal diseases where the vast majority of the population has a gene without this mutation. Of course you cannot do that with every possible genetic disease, but with some you can.
     
  16. Aug 7, 2017 #36
    That the recipient of the "fix" cannot consent on any level. Consider gender "fixing" done on babies, gender (re)assignment, and how many of those persons suffer later in life due to the choice the doctors made for them.
     
  17. Aug 7, 2017 #37

    mfb

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    That applies to babies as well, and parents have some responsibility until the child is an adult. Okay: Do you want to get rid of modern medicine applied to anyone who is not an adult yet?
    I don't see the relation to life-threatening diseases.
     
  18. Aug 7, 2017 #38
    Of course not, that would be throwing the baby out with the bath water.

    Are you implying this technology will only ever be used for life-threatening diseases? If so, I think history has shown that's a very naive view.
     
  19. Aug 7, 2017 #39
    I guess my point is, GATTACA was hypothetical. Now it is a possible future we can chose.

    Before there was no line to draw. Now we have to draw it somewhere.

    Some of you seem to want to reserve it for life-threatening issues. Why not for say meromelia or similar?
     
  20. Aug 7, 2017 #40
    That is my point precisely.
    But it is a huge step towards such technology. The comparison to computers doesn't make sense at all, though. There is a clear difference between how computers would contribute to a world like GATTACA and how genetic engineering would.
     
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