Imagine the horror if the U.S. military tried to create a genetically-engineered soldier: the guy ends up being 6′ 4″, capable of running 70 miles an hour, and is virtually bullet-proof. However, due to an unforeseen mutation, he’s gentle, wouldn’t hurt a fly, and wants to enrol in veterinary college. Or how about a billionaire who wants to create the perfect Wall Street banker equipped with an inborn hedge fund algorithm but, tragically, the kid ends up displaying socialist leanings? Perhaps worst of all, what if the perennial quest for human immortality — using Keith Richards’ DNA — produces a mutant offspring who resembles Dobby the House Elf?
According to a recent BBC story, bio-ethical questions are coming to the forefront now that the genetic research regulator in the United Kingdom, the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority, has given the go-ahead for (very limited) human “gene-editing” experiments. One goal of the experiments is to gain knowledge of how to prevent miscarriages, and any genetically modified human embryos created will be destroyed afterward, but still — this is the first time an official regulator has opened the door to what some bio-ethicists see as a Pandora’s Box. Do we really want a race of immortal house elves playing guitar music?
Scientists in China have already begun human genetic experiments, but these have not been sanctioned by a regulator because they don’t really have a regulator there, so “it’s all good.” But what’s happening in the UK is raising louder alarm bells because it has the official stamp of approval.
Watchdog David King, the director of Human Genetics Alert, warned the BBC that “this research will allow the scientists to refine the techniques for creating GMO babies, and many of the government’s scientific advisers have already decided that they are in favour of allowing that. So this is the first step in a well mapped-out process leading to GMO babies, and a future of consumer eugenics.”
The human gene-editing research will take place at the Francis Crick Institute in London, led by Dr. Kathy Niakan, who says that she wants to “understand the genes needed for a human embryo to develop successfully into a healthy baby. The reason why it is so important is because miscarriages and infertility are extremely common, but they’re not very well understood.”
Bill Rogers is a Toronto-based lawyer, journalist, and family law mediator.