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Regular readers will know that I have an artificial heart valve.  Indeed many people have implanted prosthesis, from metal joints or tooth fillings to heart pacemakers and implanted cochlear hearing aides, or just eye glasses or dentures.   Some are kept alive by drugs.  All of these are ways in which our individual survival has become progressively more dependent on technology.  So that should it fail many would suffer.  Indeed some today feel bereft without their mobile phone that now substitutes for skills, like simple mathematics, that people once had to have themselves.  But while we may be increasingly transformed by tools and implants, the underlying genes, conferred by reproduction, remain human.

The possibility of accelerated genetic evolution through technology was brought nearer last week when, on 28 November 2018, a young scientist, He Jiankui, announced, at the Second International Summit on Human Genome Editing in Hong Kong, that he had successfully used the powerful gene-editing tool CRISPR to edit a gene in several children.

Two girls, twins, have been born and are thriving and another gene-edited baby is on the way.

The reaction was outrage. Dr He has been condemned by most of his peers - and by ethicists in general - for undertaking this ground-breaking work outside of a suitably structured and safe environment and for the ethical and ongoing implications concerning these children and their possible future off-spring, who may also carry and spread this genetic modification throughout the human population. 

The putative justification for the work was to confer HIV (human immune-deficiency virus) immunity on these children who may otherwise have contracted the disease from infected parents. The successful parents were chosen from among seven couples at risk who had volunteered. 

CRISPR was used to modify a number of IVF (in vitro fertilised) human embryos to prevent the expression of a CCR5 protein, that is exploited by HIV. People who, naturally, have a variant of the CCR5 gene that fails to express the protein, that is required by the virus for replication, had been found to be immune to HIV.

But there is at least one additional implication of editing this gene. Experimental mice that were similarly made immune to HIV also demonstrated cognitive improvement.  So the gene may be important in brain development.  As a result these children may exhibit, as yet unknowable cognitive, or other developmental changes that will only be evident as they grow and learn.  This is a matter of serious concern, particularly if the impact is negative in humans.  Among the many criticisms of Dr He is that he may have opened the flood-gates to increasingly dangerous genetic 'improvements' with similar long-term implications.

CRISPR technology can be used to: edit; remove; add; or replace genes and is already used to create 'improved' plants and animals. It's easy to imagine transgenic 'super' sportsmen and women.  Failures would undoubtedly result in Frankenstein-like scenarios. Yet successes might result in people with a range of new, unnatural, abilities or attributes.  Might such more-able people be more desirable partners for their ability to hand on their more desirable genomes?  Might human evolution thus accelerate? 

Upon Dr He's announcement the World Health Organisation (WHO) warned that gene-editing may be dangerous, and announced it would establish a panel of experts to set clear guidelines and standards after studying ethical and safety issues.

When considering Dr He's motivation, in the face of possible punishment, he is no doubt aware that the first IVF baby, Louise Brown, was similarly the outcome of a rogue experiment, that was similarly announced after she was born in 1978.  At that time moral outrage resulted from 'scientists playing god' and when it was revealed that almost all the fertilised human embryos failed to thrive.  Even today, when the technology is well advanced, over two thirds of the transplanted embryos are unsuccessful and are aborted.

At the time it was a commonly held myth that new life is conferred by a god or gods at the instance of fertilisation.  It followed that these abortions were actual human babies being slaughtered en mass.  As Monty Python told us soon afterwards: 'every sperm is sacred'.  Then in 1996 there was the case of Dolly the sheep - a complex mammal, like us, cloned from a single stem-cell taken from her mother.  This technology too has become commonplace.

The ancient belief that life begins anew at each conception was thus reduced to the point of absurdity. Is God in the lab standing by to create life anew each time a technician brings ova and sperm together on a glass slide or when she multiplies a single living cell to create a new independent animal?   Where is the 'new' life in this when there is no point of conception at all?  Clearly the laboratory process is simply perpetuating the pre-existing life of the cells involved.  As it is in nature, living cells reproduce by division and life is not created anew at each division. Thus all life on Earth today is inherited from our last universal common ancestor (LUCA), around 3.5 to 3.8 billion years ago.  Sooner or later after coming into being - sometimes very quickly - all cells then die.   

Humans are colonies of billions of such continuously dividing and dying cells. At birth we have around 26 billion cells, all originating from that single original cell. By adulthood that number will grow by over a hundredfold of which total some 60 billion cells die and are replaced every day.  See: Are we the same person we once were? 

Thus in nature there is but one life but trillions upon trillions of deaths every day.

In the light of modern technology and knowledge the point at which a cluster of cells can be said to be a new person has become much less obvious than it was just two centuries ago. Many doctors and ethicists now agree it's at the point when he or she is potentially capable of successful independence from their mother.  Yet some Roman Catholics and others persist in the ancient and obviously erroneous idea that a new life (and soul) begins at conception. Thus the debate over abortion and morning-after pills persists.

Despite potential jail time Dr He no doubt takes solace in the history of IVF.  After initial moral outrage in just four decades IVF technology has become very widely used, including by many Roman Catholic parents. 

According to the European Society of Human Reproduction and Embryology by mid 2018 more than 8 million people owed their creation to IVF.  And 68 years after their breakthrough one of the 'rogue' researchers: Robert G. Edwards was finally awarded the Nobel Prize, in Physiology or Medicine, his two controversial IVF co-developers, Patrick Steptoe and Jean Purdy, being dead and thus ineligible, yet for their friends and decedents, posthumously vindicated.

 

 

 

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