Gene Editing is Now Outpacing Ethics

We met ethicist Jeantine E. Lunshof while visiting Harvard Medical School to research the genetics behind ANYA. She talked with us informally during script development and provided notes on a rough cut. Jeantine’s influence is felt in the ethical discussions in ANYA.

Her 2017 Op-Ed for the Washington Post overviews the challenges faced by geneticists and ethicists concerned rapid developments in gene editing.

Gene Editing is Now Outpacing Ethics

Jeantine E. Lunshof is an ethicist in the Church lab at Harvard Medical School’s Department of Genetics and an assistant professor at the University Medical Center Groningen, University of Groningen, Netherlands.

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. — It came as a shock in 2015 when researchers in China published experiments to genetically modify non-viable human early embryos. Emotions ran high and propelled a wave of activities addressing ethical and technical concerns in genome editing. Headlines featured questions on “where to draw the line.” Some called for a ban.

Where to draw the line is frequently asked with new developments in genome editing, especially when the genome editing tool CRISPR is mentioned. Ethicists — professional or by ambition, individuals or committees — are called upon and expected to provide answers, to show where to draw the line. However, in biology — the science of living systems — there are no definite answers. At most, there are lines in the sand that are washed away by the next wave of discovery. The theoretical ethics quest for deep answers is slow, remote from and outpaced by the developments at the bench.

One practical solution is to bring the philosophy and ethics toolbox to the floor of the lab itself, to the point where the lines begin to be drawn in the first place.

I’m a philosopher and ethicist working in a genomics lab, and I have witnessed the early development of genome editing and the debates over its applications. The prospect of gene therapy revived old discussions on interventions in the body of the treated individual only (somatic) versus interventions that via the germline (eggs and sperm) will be inherited by future generations. This is déjà vu of the debates in the 1980s. As before, the strongest call for drawing fundamental and non-negotiable lines applies to human germline editing.

In California, a group of academics and scientists made recommendations to “encourage” further fundamental research and to “discourage” any premature attempts at the clinical use of human germline editing. Later that year, a committee of scientists and ethicists at the International Summit on Human Gene Editing proposed a list of criteria without which it would be “irresponsible to proceed with any clinical use of germline editing,” while “intensive basic and preclinical research is clearly needed and should proceed” to enable reaping the benefits of novel therapies. No walls were or have been erected since. At most, dotted lines were drawn.

Read the full Op-Ed at the Washington Post.

jacob okada