The 2020 Nobel Prize for Chemistry has been shared by two extraordinary women for an extraordinary gene editing tool, CRISPR/Cas-9. Molecular science, and life as we know it, has changed forever. Now now we face one of the biggest moral dilemmas of our time. It’s a fascinating subject, in both truth, and fiction.
I have my son, Jason, to thank for bringing a fascination with genome editing—and CRISPR/Cas-9—to my world. In year 11 biology, he was tasked with an assignment on gene therapy – to research the science of genetics, the possibilities brought about by revolutionary new gene editing technology (CRISPR), and the moral implications of editing the human genome. It blew his mind. I can still see his face when he told me all about it. “It’s sooo cool, Mum!” We have shared an obsession with CRISPR and all things genetic science related ever since.
So, when I came to create Frankie – the protagonist in To A Perfect Stranger – and I needed her to be super-smart with a scientific background, a genetic scientist was the first thing I thought of. It’s great advice from writing gurus, to put your research hours into something you’re already fascinated by, although at one point I did say to my editor that I would probably choose something a little less complicated than genetic science next time around – rocket science maybe. It has been a complex subject to wrap my (exploding) head around. But Jason was right, it is sooo cool. Not just because of what it can do, but because of the questions it raises about what we should do.
Within reach is the power to edit DNA—cut and paste the building blocks of life like a biological word processor—with greater precision, less cost, and faster than anything that has ever been used in this field before. But also within grasping distance is the possibility of unintended consequences, off target effects, and the genesis of what will no doubt, over time, alter the course of human evolution.
Voltaire said it first, “With great power comes great responsibility,” and when you start researching CRISPR, every article, every opinion—for or against—echoes that sentiment in one form or another.
If you are interested in the science, the most comprehensive, yet digestible article I found about how CRISPR came into being was written by the very clever Amy Maxmen and published in WIRED in July 2015. You can find it on line here: https://www.wired.com/2015/07/crispr-dna-editing-2/. It carries this chilling heading:
Easy DNA Editing Will Remake the World. Buckle Up.
When you open it, you are staring at a full black screen, with stark, bold, white text, the perfect staging for stark, bold statements:
“We now have the power to quickly and easily alter DNA. It could eliminate disease. It could solve world hunger. It could provide unlimited clean energy.”
And then my favourite bit:
“It could really get out of hand.”
Therein lies the most interesting thing of all, the moral and ethical arguments centred around “God in a Kit,” (to paraphrase journalist Paul Beigler, Sydney Morning Herald, March 2019), and the question on everyone’s lips: Once we start, where do we stop? If you can prevent your baby from being born with a dangerous genetic condition, should you also give them longer legs while you’re shopping? Perfect eyesight? But where would you draw the line? Only the wealthy would be able to afford that, so how is that fair? And … who gets to decide what a perfect human is anyway? I have enough trouble trying to decide what shoes to wear.
Imagine rocking up to the Designer Baby Clinic to be told “We have a special this week, three super-traits for the price of two. Anything from the column on the right is available because we’re overstocked on those; mathematical genius, perfect pitch (that’s going out of style by the way), or the gift of the gab. And we can knock out one undesirable minor-nuisance-trait with that package. You can choose between hay fever, a crooked nose or hammer toes. Remembering of course that perfect noses and empathy are often mutually exclusive. One generally overrides the other. So choose carefully. You have five minutes.”
Jokes aside, it’s a slippery slope. I’d choose to make things come easily to my kids if I could. Life’s hard. Why would anyone choose to make it harder? But like most things, you don’t really know the flip side until it’s too late.
We don’t know enough yet about how our complex genes interact to avoid unpredictable consequences, or even create desired outcomes. I have been fortunate to have the opportunity to interview doctor and scientist, Dr Inken Martin from the Victor Chang Cardiac Research Institute, and to speak to her about using genome editing in her research. To quote Inken, “The more scientists discover about the human genome, the more we realise how much we don’t know.”
So we are a long way off worrying about whether or not it is ethical to manipulate genes for things like intelligence, or even hammer toes, and ethical frameworks are in place to prevent germline gene modification in human embryos or sex cells to produce a heritable change – meaning the changes would be passed on to the next generation. This is against the law in most countries, and certainly considered dangerous and irresponsible by the scientific community at large.
My protagonist, Frankie, is a bit of a rogue. She says, “I can’t stand that people suffer and die while we stand around arguing about what is right. We have been having the same ethical discussions for more than fifty years.” She thinks it’s going to happen anyway, whether we like it or not, and that collectively the science community should create a new ethical framework and “get stuck in”.
I can’t say if I agree with Frankie, because truth is always stranger – and a lot more complicated – than fiction.
But she certainly makes you think.
Emmanuelle Charpentier and Jennifer Doudna, shared in the 2020 Nobel Prize in Chemistry.
Feature Image Credit: LacasaDeGoethe at Pixabay