Science Lab

Does science have the right to play god?

I came across an interesting news article where a Chinese scientist altered a baby’s genes to lower their chance of contracting AIDS without any formal permission from peers or an administrative power [1]. This article piqued my interest, and I decided to continue reading. The article discusses the consequences and reactions of the scientific community to the experiment, most of them condemning the scientist. As I read the article, one question started to sear itself into the back of my mind, even after I had finished the article.

 

Does Science have the right to play god?

 

On one hand, people may argue that Science does have the right to play god. One of the primary reasons we humans decide to do Science is to learn more about how we can use the tools and materials available to us to our advantage, such as blacksmithing to create swords, which deal a lot more damage than just mere sticks or clubs. 

 

Many laboratories are undergoing clinical trials to get replacement organs - liver and muscles - artificially grown in a laboratory condition approved for widespread medical use. This opportunity could never have come to fruition if not for the desire to cure illness and heal disease afflicting our day-to-day lives. 

 

The tool used by a Chinese scientist, CRISPR, could very well become the next step in curing illness. Thirty-eight million people currently have aids [2]. With a gene alteration where the effect of AIDS/HIV is wholly eradicated, this could mean that there are 38 million more people who can fill up jobs, have the opportunity to live like ordinary people and be part of a functioning society.

 

 This seems like a reasonably hopeful but bold step in Science, curing illness and negating disease. However, CRISPR, as it stands, is not as shiny and revolutionary as people may think.

 

Even though this year’s (2020) Nobel peace prize winner [3] was awarded based on her discoveries of a tool to assist in gene editing, it can still be argued that CRISPR and gene editing may not be safe enough for use by the general public. In a report published by members of the US National Academy of Medicine, US National Academy of the Sciences and the United Kingdom’s Royal Society, some guidelines were published if a country ever were to consider the legalisation of CRISPR Gene editing. [1]

 

Guidelines include, but are not limited to:

  • Limitation “to cases where people have no or very poor options for having a child without the disease”,

  • “Pregnancy with edited embryos should not be attempted unless it is possible to make only the intended gene changes and not any unintended ones”, and

  • “Extensive public discussions should be held before any country decides to allow editing embryos, eggs or sperm”.

 

These guidelines are reasonably agreeable and justified, based on the fact that there are still gaps in our knowledge about CRISPR functionality and its possible unintended consequences. In an important issue like this, playing safe and ensuring that every bit of information regarding the issue is recorded would be the most beneficial option since this area of Science is moving very heavily into the application of scientific research, not the understanding. 

 

Even if CRISPR gene editing were legal, there is a genuine chance that the process would be pretty expensive, putting massive percentages of the population unable to access this technology, leaving it to the rich. Issues such as enhanced strength, intelligence or analytical skills could give the children unfair advantages over less privileged children from less privileged families and households who do not have access to that technology.

 

In conclusion, the benefits of CRISPR gene editing help justify the move toward the potential issues affecting our lives, such as illness and disease. However, it is best to play it safe and wait patiently for the day that CRISPR gene editing can become a technology for us to use. Science will eventually have the right to play god, whether we like it or not, but it depends on what we do today when that day comes around.

By Pon Pingkarawat

(Year 12 student at Bangkok Patana School)



 

References & Further reading

 

[1] M. Marchione, “Still too soon to try altering human embryo DNA, panel says” - https://apnews.com/article/ap-top-news-health-technology-science-asia-pacific-f780bdc9040c241fcc38087cd6f26b17

 

[2] hiv.gov, “The global HIV/Aids epidemic” - https://www.hiv.gov/hiv-basics/overview/data-and-trends/global-statistics

 

[3] J. Patterson, “Biology: Jennifer Doudna wins 2020 Nobel Prize in Chemistry” - https://www.tunisiesoir.com/science/biology-jennifer-doudna-wins-2020-nobel-prize-in-chemistry-24533-2020/