On Unlocking the Human Genome

August 8, 2016
Andres Lee Northwood High School 11th Grade

Andres Lee
Northwood High School 11th Grade

Last November, more than 150 prominent American sci- entists urged for a federal ban on the genetic modification of children and future generations, fearing that unrestricted ac- cess to our genomes would hold irreparable consequences for society. But alarmingly, a U.S. federal committee has recently appeared to disregard this request, allowing the University of Pennsylvania to test CRISPR – a gene editing technique – on human patients.

It is important to note, however, that this proposed trial is far from the world’ s first human alteration experiment. Last April, Chinese researchers used CRISPR on 86 nonviable human embryos to study the genetic blood disorder thalas- semia. The United Kingdom followed suit this February, allowing British scientists the use of CRISPR to research em- bryo development.

As such, the significance of the upcoming U.S. trials lies not in that the subjects are human, but in that they are adults as opposed to nonviable embryos, making the trials the first attempt to use genetically altered cells on mature subjects. In the trials, the scientists will remove cells from eighteen cancer patients, edit them with CRISPR, and rein- sert them into the patients. They hope to gain insightful in- formation regarding treatment for melanoma, sarcoma, and myeloma. But as with all scientific firsts, a question presents itself: Is this a brave step forward for science and progress, or one towards a twisted future?

Opponents of human genetic engineering and the U.S. tri- als point to the movie GATTACA, a dystopian film in which the wealthy can genetically“upgrade” their children, further widening class divides and dangerously echoing Nazi ideals of a master race. The film serves as an ominous warning of the future if genetic modification technology is allowed to advance unchecked.

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However, we live in a world where 14 million people are diagnosed with cancer every year, 420,000 of which are due to inherited gene faults, and where genetic complications and disorders result in 20 percent of all infant deaths worldwide. While the cautionary warnings of opponents of human ge- netic engineering are not unfounded, the upcoming U.S. trials

could be invaluable in the ever-pressing search for a cure for cancer and genetic illnesses. It is unreasonable to refuse our scientists permission to explore the possibilities medical genetic technology might hold simply because we fear the worst case scenario. Shutting down a way to potentially save the lives of millions would not only be archaic, but outright immoral if we neglect to give the issue the careful consider- ation it requires. Unparalleled scientific progress and revolu- tionary medical advancement may be waiting just outside our doorstep: the only way to find out is to temporarily set aside our many fears, open the door, and see for ourselves.

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