Should we edit the human genome? That was the question guest lecturers Dr. Brendan Sweetman and Dr. Alejandro Sanchez Alverado attempted to answer as part of the Cope lecture series March 3 in the Yates-Gill College Union.
Sweetman, a philosopher and professor from Rockhurst University, began the evening by presenting his views on the subject – mainly his concern that the technology of genetic modification could be used for nefarious purposes such as reproductive cloning or the selection of the certain traits in order to create so-called designer babies.
Sweetman also emphasized the difference between the genetic testing in principle and in practice. He argued that while it may be ethical in principle for the treatment of diseases and potential benefit for longevity, in practice testing presents too much of a risk for the destruction of viable embryos, the creation of designer babies and eugenics.
Overall, the crux of his argument was rooted in the complexity of this issue. What he sees as potentially “cultural shifting issue” should be decided “by the general public through the democratic process.”
Alvarado, director of science from the Stowers Institute, made the case for the therapeutic benefits of genetic testing as well as the need to contitune driving the scientific process in all aspects.
Alvarado was not shy to answer concerns about genetic manipulation, and he adamantly condemned its usage for reproductive cloning, selecting “designer” traits in children and the experiments of He Jiankui – the Chinese doctor who edited the genomes of three embryos without consent from any ethics committee or the families involved.
Jiankui was jailed for three years for these actions and faces a $430,000 fine.
However, Alvarado praised the potentially life-saving capabilities of genetic editing, citing real world examples of children who have been cured of life-altering maladies because of CRISPR technology. He also urged listeners to understand the difference between science and technology, and that continued funding of scientific research is essential.
“CRISPR [the genetic editing tool] was not even thinkable when I was in school, or even five years ago” he said. “We don’t know what’s coming down the pipeline, and nature may have solutions for many of our problems that we don’t even know about yet.”
In one particularly passionate moment, Alvarado also emphasized that pursuing new technology in the United States or in Europe means that we have a say in the ethics of such technology. If research is only advanced in countries under authoritarian regimes, ethics might not play the role they should in the discussion.
By the end of the evening, and a brief question and answer period, both men seemed to find common ground. They decided that certain uses were morally wrong, but that because it could increase the quality of human life, it is in the best interest of everyone to contitune to have these discussions about the real world ramifications of such powerful technology.
“For a pluralistic society to hear that religious authorities, secular authorities, ethicists, scientists, etc. agree on something, I think that’s important,” Alvarado said.
He also thinks that it will help everyday people in deciding their opinion of the subject.
The lecture was well attended by students, faculty and community members alike, who enjoyed discussion and desserts after the lecture.
“The opportunity to have two great minds – specifically a geneticist and an ethicist – come together to talk about a very controversial issue was a very enlightening and enriching experience,” said Chris Seward, senior biochemistry and Applied Critical Thought and Inquiry major.