How many of you have heard of CRISPR? I gather from the Wikipedia article that it somehow holds the key to a gene editing technology that is relatively simple to implement compared to older methods in this field. Pioneers in this area of science include Jennifer Doudna and Emmanuelle Charpentier. This is mind-blowing stuff with many practical applications. You can develop approaches to tackling diseases by modifying the DNA itself. (Think of approaches to attacking cancer in the most efficient manner without having any of the current side-effects of such treatment.) You can easily modify the DNA of pests such as mosquitoes that spread diseases as a form of pest control. You can easily modify the DNA of plants so that they are more useful to humans. You can easily modify the properties of microorganisms so that they are less dangerous to humans, and perhaps even do useful things for them. The possibilities are endless, and therein lies the problem.
It is a fact that we human beings have played a very significant factor in determining the nature of the lifeforms that exist on this planet today. As a process of evolution, human beings have changed over the centuries, and we have also managed to impact a lot of the things around us that we find in “nature”. If you think that all the meats and the fruits and vegetables that we buy in the grocery store are all “natural”, think again. They have all taken the form they are today only because we as humans have managed to affect changes to the lifeforms that are the basis of our foods in a certain way to our benefit. We have dominated the environment of our planet in this context. In addition to the evolutionary changes that we have caused (sped up through the process of efficient “farming”), we have also been affecting faster and more deliberate genetic changes through science in the last century or so. While we may not have looked at what we were doing with that perspective, we have always been playing God. And while all of this is happening, there is this moment every once in a while when we momentarily pause to consider the ethical impact of what we are doing.
The pace is now about to pick up significantly! With simpler technology for gene editing, we have the capability to move forward much faster. Not only that, we have the ability to open up newer frontiers in science, and with that raise a bunch of new ethical questions.
Medicine has always been about trying to take care of the problems of human beings at all stages of life and very often regardless of the costs involved. We have been successful in extending human life significantly (for what reason, one is not always sure). We are all about trying to make sure that people are healthy and that we overcome any health issue with all the resources available. With the new gene repair technology, having access to all of this can become only a matter of cost. There are of course always ethical questions involved when cost enters the picture.
But the more intriguing ethical dilemma to me will be about the process of creating a life. It seems that not only will will be able to fix problems after birth, but we may even be able to address them before we are born. Wow! For example, if there is a risk of Down’s syndrome in a baby, perhaps we can now do something about it very easily before the baby is born! Now, we are really playing God.
I suspect that some people are going to be appalled by the ethical questions that are raised, as if we are crossing some barrier that must not be breached. But truth we told, we have always been playing God, and we have always been willing to accept any science and technology that we feel is to our benefit. Only now the pace of “progress” increases, and this progress continues relentlessly. It is all a continuum and the barriers that are only in our minds will be hurdled over before too long. Where we are headed, nobody really knows. This process started a long time ago.
The really crazy thing about all of this is even as science and technology leads us fearlessly across new frontiers, we are still unable to address some other basic requirements for humanity to thrive. We still have inequality in the world. We still have poverty and hunger. Crazy!