Part 2 of a series: Silk Road Soliloquies
By Tyler Sapsford
It was on a particularly gloomy and dark fall afternoon a few weeks ago when my close friend and teammate — one who happens to be far more well-versed in the intricate language of science than me — approached me about an exhilarating experiment he had just conducted in one of his labs. To use his words, the lab exercise included
“Inserting Guide RNA into mice embryos that contained a mutation that would lead to muscular dystrophy. The CRISPR/CAS9 enzyme then cut this segment DNA, allowing for the insertion and annealing of genetically engineered DNA, which cured 40% of the mice from the disease.”
To a mere mortal, or an igonominious amatuer of the sciences like me, this translates to the following: humans have finally found a way to accomplish what was once thought to be the impossible. We — and I selfishly use this particular all-encompassing pronoun to elevate myself upon the podium with the geniuses and the geniuses-to-be (like this teammate of mine) — are now able to genetically modify living organisms’ DNA to develop any physical characteristics we desire, by using this magical ingredient, CRISPR/CAS9.
My first hunch —
“Wait, does this mean I will be able to gift my kids the ability to jump like Le’Bron and sing like Mariah?” Maybe I could even make my kids become excellent scientists!
Moments after, I felt a perfect combination of embarrassment and pride at our Yale Athletics version of ‘locker room talk.’ But it was soon replaced by a sense of anxiety.
What does this mean for humanity? Aside from the moral considerations, what are the economic implications going to be? Will this not open a pandora’s box? What’s to say that strengthening one gene pool won’t weaken another? What could be the unintended consequences?
So when I opened the New York Times earlier this week to the headline, “Chinese Scientist Claims to Use Crispr to Make First Genetically Edited Babies,” I was hardly surprised. This past week, a Chinese Scientist, Dr. He Jiankui, was able to genetically modify a gene in an embryo using Crispr-Cas9 before implanting into a mother’s womb. This, according to Dr. He’s science, would allow the child to live with certainty that their body would resist infection with HIV. Aside from the obvious risks that a child and their mother could incur, the news ignited a heated debate over the ethics of Dr. He’s genetic modifying and drew acrimonious responses.
But what’s more, the irony runs deep. The use of Crispr-cas9 breaking headlines in a country that has only recently turned away from manipulating reproduction as an engine for productivity inevitably reminds us of the decades during which China was characterized by the one-child policy and forced family planning.
The consequences were disastrous and unexpected; gender-based abortions and a preference for males over females have left the country with over 30 million bachelors, and has left a generation of only-children having to pay for and take care of an entire generation of parents and grandparents. What was once considered a method of managing a runaway population, the one-child policy created demographic crisis, leaving it up to the children themselves to solve.
The most consequential and profound legacy of this selective childbearing in China, however, is perhaps the willingness at the national level to subordinate political concerns to the merciless march of progress. In the case of the Crispr scenario, children, born after the particular genetic modification of the embryo that Dr. He conducted, face a higher risks of contracting certain other viruses, such as West Nile or fatal strains of the flu. In this field with limited empirical data, who knows what further consequences there could be beyond these added risks?
A threat we face with such pioneering medical technology is that the deadliest and most consuming diseases will build immunity against our most effective and powerful medicine. Consider the H1N1 strand of the flu virus; unknown to mankind before 2013, this new strand was a product of a ‘flu uprising,’ where viruses developing resistance to what we believed as an all-curing flu treatment. If diseases can begin to build resistance against genetic modification, the consequences can be potentially far greater. In a less-developed country like China, with large segments of the population unable to afford the most modern medicine and treatment, disease evolution can be disastrous, raising the possibility that such diseases could spread across the world.
The Chinese experience is a harbinger of a new reality soon to become a widespread phenomena. Genetic modification will become cheaper, more prevalent, and commonplace in the world of medicine. The coming ethical, medical, and political discussions will have to take place on an international level, and address how to balance progress with ethical and sociological concern. In China, however, the Pandora’s box is already wide open.
Tyler is a junior in Saybrook College. You can contact him at email@example.com.