Gene editing provides significant possibilities for treating and even curing diseases. It also confers tremendous power over the genetic makeup of individual human beings and humanity itself.
With great potential comes great responsibility to use this genetic power wisely. Gene-editing tools, such as the new CRISPR-Cas system, are just that — tools that can be applied to solve various problems, or to create problems. It's our choice as to how we apply those tools.
Improving health complications and treating diseases by altering genetic expression in cells and tissues holds promise for future medicine. There are already several promising examples. Researchers at the University of Texas-Southwestern have stopped the progression of Duchenne muscular dystrophy in mice, a fatal muscular condition that is most severe in young boys. Young mice treated with the gene-editing technique showed repaired muscles. Soon, this technique might be tested in muscular dystrophy patients.
Another example is a proposed clinical trial, coordinated by the Midwest Stem Cell Therapy Center in Kansas City, Kan., to use gene editing to treat patients with aplastic anemia, a serious condition where the bone marrow does not make enough blood cells. Less than a year ago, the life of a baby girl in the U.K. was saved using gene-edited immune cells as part of her treatment for intractable leukemia.
These are only a small sampling of the many applications that are on the drawing boards of scientists around the world. Most notably, all of these applications use gene-editing tools on born human beings. Genetic engineering experiments have also been proposed on human embryos.
Chinese laboratories report several attempts to edit the genes of human embryos as have labs in Sweden and the U.K. undertaking similar experiments. One three-parent baby has been born in Mexico, and others are gestating now. Genetic engineering of embryos supposedly would be done to "prevent" an individual from carrying a genetic mutation, but such genetic changes would affect not just the manipulated individual. These mutations could be passed down through the germline to future generations with unknown implications for everyone, not just the "designer babies."
The Institute of Medicine has given an ethical "pass" to the manufacture and gestation of three-parent babies, of which the FDA has agreed. Unfortunately, these experiments treat no one. Instead, they create new genetically manipulated human beings with hopes they are free of disease.
If there are concerns and debates about genetically modified foods and fish, surely we need considered discussions about genetically modified humans. The language suspends genetic experiments only with human embryos; in no way does it hinder genetic therapies or trials for born individuals, allowing this type of research to continue unabated.
We must be cautious not to paint all gene editing as bad. We must thoughtfully weigh the applications, the potential benefits as well as the negatives, considering how this might be applied and who might be the research subjects. It is critical that Congress hears from issue experts and stakeholders when forming policy. As Congress prepares to consider policy about human genetics and the future of the human race, we're all stakeholders.
Dr. Michael C. Burgess is a member of the House of Representatives from Texas. Dr.David A.Prentice is vice president and research director of the Charlotte Lozier Institute.