Genetics

Video Series: John Harris Defends Gene-Editing in Human Embryos

Novel gene editing technologies, such as CRISPR/Cas9, allow scientists to make very precise changes in the genome of human embryos. This could prevent serious genetic diseases in future children. But the use of gene editing in human embryos also raises questions: Is it safe? Should prospective parents be free to choose the genetic characteristics of their children? What if they want to use gene editing to have a deaf child, or a child with fair skin and blue eyes? Should gene editing be regulated globally, or should each country have their own legislation? In this interview with Katrien Devolder, John Harris (Professor Emeritus, University of Manchester &  Visiting Professor in Bioethics, King’s College London) answers these and other questions, and defends the view that we have the strongest moral obligation to gene-edit human embryos, not only to prevent disease but also for the purpose of enhancement.

Blade Runner 2049, Parfit and Identity

Julian Savulescu

 

Contains spoilers for both Blade Runner films. This is a longer version of a shorter piece without spoilers, Blade Runner 2049: Identity, Humanity, and Discrimination, in Pursuit 

Blade Runner 2049, like the original, is about identity, humanity and discrimination.

Identity and Humanity

In both films, bioengineered humans are known as replicants.  Blade Runners “retire” or kill these replicants when they are a threat to society. In the original, Blade Runner Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford) has all the memories and feelings of a human and believes himself to be a human, only at the end to discover he is a replicant. In the sequel, K (Ryan Gosling) is a replicant but comes to believe (falsely) that he is Deckard’s child. In Blade Runner 2049, we are left to watch K dying, realising his memories were implanted by Deckard’s daughter.

In both films we are left wondering what difference there is between a human and a replicant. In the original, rogue replicant Roy Batty (Rutger Hauer) saves Deckard’s life (as Deckard was trying to kill him) and delivers famous “Tears in the Rain” speech:

“I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe. Attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion. I watched C-beams glitter in the dark near the Tannhäuser Gate. All those moments will be lost in time, like tears in rain. Time to die.”

Roy comes across as more human than the humans in the film. Indeed, in a preceding scene, a thorn or spike appears through his hand reminiscent of Christ, whose own identity as fully human and fully divine has puzzled Theologians for two millenia.

Both films challenge what it is to be human. In 2049, K believes the child of Deckard might have a soul because it was born.

Who are we?

The films both raise fundamental questions about personal identity: who are we? What fundamentally defines the existence of a person from one moment to the next? In both films, there is the suggestion that the biological mass, the body, is not what matters but the mind. In the original, bioengineered Roy seems as human as Deckard, as human as someone could be. In 2049, the idea is extended further still: K’s girlfriend Joi is an AI but seems as real as the other characters and her death is equally tragic.

Derek Parfit died in January this year. He was the world’s most famous moral philosopher (and his favourite film was another Ridley Scott classic, The Duellists). One of his famous ideas is that “identity” is not what matters. He articulated this in his masterpiece, Reasons and Persons (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1984). According to Parfit, what matters is psychological continuity and connectedness, that is, the unity of our mental states.

Continue reading

The non-identity problem of professional philosophers

By Charles Foster

Philosophers have a non-identity problem. It is that they are not identified as relevant by the courts. This, in an age where funding and preferment are often linked to engagement with the non-academic world, is a worry.

This irrelevance was brutally demonstrated in an English Court of Appeal case,  (‘the CICA case’) the facts of which were a tragic illustration of the non-identity problem. Continue reading

DNA papers, please

Kuwait is planning to build a complete DNA database of not just citizens but all other residents and temporary visitorsThe motivation is claimed to be antiterrorism (the universal motivation!) and fighting crime. Many are outraged, from local lawyers over a UN human rights committee to the European Society of Human Genetics, and think that it will not be very helpful against terrorism (how does having the DNA of a suicide bomber help after the fact?) Rather, there are reasons to worry about misuse in paternity testing (Kuwait has strict adultery laws),  and in the politics of citizenship (which provides many benefits): it is strictly circumscribed to paternal descendants of the original Kuwaiti settlers, and there is significant discrimination against people with no recognized paternity such as the Bidun minority. Plus, and this might be another strong motivation for many of the scientists protesting against the law, it might put off public willingness to donate their genomes into research databases where they actually do some good. Obviously it might also put visitors off visiting – would, for example, foreign heads of state accept leaving their genome in the hands of another state? Not to mention the discovery of adultery in ruling families – there is a certain gamble in doing this.

Overall, it seems few outside the Kuwaiti government are cheering for the law. When I recently participated in a panel discussion organised by the BSA at the Wellcome Collection about genetic privacy, at the question “Would anybody here accept mandatory genetic collection?” only one or two hands rose in the large audience. When would it make sense to make mandatory genetic information collection? Continue reading

Video Series: Dr Christopher Gyngell on Genetic Modification of Embryos

Dr Christopher Gyngell (Oxford) comments on the HFEA’s decision to give green light to UK researchers to genetically modify human embryos for research. A clear analysis of the most common concerns, and a suggestion for what direction the debate should take.

Why edited embryos won’t lead to designer babies or eugenics (unless we want it too)

The UK became the first country to officially approve gene editing research in human embryos on Monday. The HFEA decision means experiments in which the genes of embryos are manipulated will likely begin at the Francis Crick Institute within the next few months.

Gene editing (GE) technologies are immensely powerful. They have already been used to manipulate mosquitos so they cannot carry diseases like malaria or Zika. They have been used in medicine to reprogram human immune cells to target cancer. When used for research purposes, they promise to greatly increase our knowledge of genetics and human heredity. This will lead to a better understanding of disease, which in turn will allow better treatments – including better drugs.

Continue reading

Gene Editing: A CBC Interview of Margaret Somerville and Julian Savulescu

The following is a transcript of an interview conducted by Jim Brown from Canadian Broad Casting Corporation’s program, The 180, on 3 December between Margaret Somerville and Julian Savulescu

Margaret Somerville is the Founding Director of the Centre for Medicine, Ethics and Law, the Samuel Gale Chair in Law and Professor in the Faculty of Medicine at McGill University, Montreal. She’s also the author of the new book ‘Bird on an Ethics Wire: Battles about Values in the Culture Wars’.

Julian Savulescu is Uehiro Chair in Practical Ethics and Director of the Oxford Uehiro Centre for Practical Ethics at the University of Oxford.

JB: Julian Savulescu, if I could begin with you. You argue that there is a moral imperative for us to pursue gene editing research. Briefly, why do you think it’s so important for us to embrace this technology?

JS: Genetic engineering has been around for about 30 years, widely used in medical research, and also in agriculture, but gene editing is a new version of genetic engineering that is highly accurate, specific, and is able to modify genomes without causing side effects or damage. It’s already been used to create malaria-fighting mosquitoes, drought-resistant wheat, and in other areas of agriculture. But what’s currently being proposed is the genetic modification of human embryos, and this has caused widespread resistance. I think there’s a moral obligation to do this kind of research in the following way. This could be used to create human embryos with very precise genetic modifications, to understand how we develop, why development goes wrong, why genetic disorders occur. It could also be used to create embryonic stem cells with precise changes that might make subsequent stem cells, cancer-fighting stem cells, or even stem cells that fight aging. It could also be used to create tissue with say, changes to understand the origins of Parkinson’s disease or Alzheimer’s disease and develop drugs for the treatment of those diseases. This is what I’d call therapeutic gene editing, and because it stands to benefit millions of people who die every year of painful and debilitating conditions, we actually have a moral imperative to do it. What we ought to show more concern for and perhaps ban, is what might be called reproductive gene editing – editing embryos to create live-born babies that are free of genetic disease or perhaps more resistant to common, late-onset diseases or even enhanced in various ways. If we’re concerned about those sorts of changes in society, we can ban reproductive gene editing, yet also engage in the very beneficial research using genetically modified human embryos to study disease.

JB: And Margaret Somerville, what concerns you about this technology? 

MS: Well, I’m interested in the division that Julian makes between the reproductive gene editing and what he calls the therapeutic gene editing. I’m a little surprised that he might not agree with the reproductive gene editing – that is, you would alter the embryo’s germline, so that it wouldn’t be only altered for that embryo, but all the descendants of that embryo would be changed in the same way. And up until – actually, up until this year, there was almost universal agreement, including in some important international documents, that that was wrong, that was ethically wrong, it was a line that we must never step across, that humans have a right to come into existence with their own unique genetic heritage and other humans have no right to alter them, to design them. Julian uses the term genetic engineering – to make them, to manufacture them. Where we would disagree completely is with the setting up of what can be called human embryo manufacturing plants, that is, you would create human embryos in order to use them to make products that would benefit other people, you would use them for experimentation, for research. And Julian’s right, we could do a great deal of good doing that – but there’s a huge danger in looking only at the good that we do. And what we’re doing there is we’re using human life as a product. We’re transmitting human life with the intention of killing it by using it as a product, and I believe that’s wrong. I think that human embryos have moral status that deserves respect, which means they shouldn’t be treated just as products.

Continue reading

Gene-free: Can parents refuse genetic testing for their child?

by Dominic Wilkinson @Neonatalethics

A critically ill infant in intensive care (let us call him Jonas) has serious congenital abnormalities affecting his liver and brain.1 Doctors looking after Jonas suspect that he may have a major genetic problem. They have recommended testing for Jonas, to help determine whether he does have this problem.

However, Jonas’ parents have refused consent for the genetic test. They are concerned that the test could be used to discriminate against Jonas and against them; they have repeatedly indicated that they will not agree to it being performed.

Could it ever be ethical to perform genetic testing on a child against parental wishes?

Continue reading

Gene editing and eugenics

A study published last week in the journal Cell has led to speculation that a powerful new gene editing technique is about to be developed.

Gene editing has received widespread media coverage over the past few months. Most of the excitement has centred on a specific gene editing technique, the CRISPR-cas9 system. Research conducted with CRISPR-cas9 on human embryos has been highly controversial, at least partly because some people fear it will lead to gene editing being used to alter the human germline for clinical applications, and will have unpredictable effects on future generations.

Continue reading

Guest Post: Genetics education, genetic determinism, and the trickle-down effect

Written By Johanna Ahola-Launonen

University of Helsinki

In bioethical discussion, it is often debated whether or not some studies espouse genetic determinism. A recent study by Tuomas Aivelo and Anna Uitto[1] give important insight to the matter. They studied main genetics education textbooks used in Finnish upper secondary school curricula and compared the results to other similar studies from e.g. Swedish and English textbooks. The authors found that gene models used in the textbooks are based on old “Mendelian law”-based gene models not compatible with current knowledge on gene-gene-environment-interaction. The authors also identified several types of genetic determinism, that is, weak determinism and strong determinism, which both were present in the textbooks. The somewhat intuitive remark is that genetic education has to have a strong trickle-down effect on how people understand genes, and that we should be careful not to maintain these flawed conceptions. Furthermore, it would be useful to separate the discussion on genetic determinism into the terms “weak” and “strong”, of which the strong version is undoubtedly rarer while the weak is more prevalent.

Continue reading

Authors

Subscribe Via Email

Affiliations