Produced by Center for Genetics and Society
Featuring Paul Knoepfler and Nathaniel Comfort
On 26 January 2016, the Center for Genetics and Society hosted an online discussion on 'Exploring heritable genetic modification: the promise and perils of altering future humans'. Paul Knoepfler, author of the 2015 book 'GMO Sapiens: The Life-Changing Science of Designer Babies', was interviewed by science historian Nathaniel Comfort.
I was looking forward to this webinar. The discussion was timely, following the passing of legislation on mitochondrial donation in the UK in 2015, and amid current debates about genome-editing technologies, such as CRISPR. Introducing the conversation, Marcy Darnovsky told the audience that genetic modification is 'now with us', a thought she described as both lively and sobering. Knoepfler's views about these developments are well known – during the UK mitochondrial donation debates, he contributed evidence to the scientific reviews, was mentioned at the House of Commons and House of Lords and hosts his own popular blog. He recently tweeted that he was 'excited about genetic modification' but was also cautious about 'talk of clinic use'.
Much of the conversation focused on the risks and benefits of gene editing. Knoepfler argued that genetic modification is an experiment and, in science, experiments often don't work. CRISPR can have unintended consequences, for example by creating a change in the wrong place or making the wrong edit. Even though we might be excited by CRISPR, he recognises 'it is not perfect' and it is too soon to know the risks.
Knoepfler added that although the safest application would be for single-gene disorders, the most exciting potential of CRISPR is its ability to target multiple genes. For example, he said that intelligence might be linked to hundreds of genes, yet this would not necessarily put scientists off from taking it on as a potential goal. Knoepfler mentions the ease with which individuals can use the technology, even in their own garages or kitchens, and CRISPR kits are already available online. While biohacking is fascinating, at a genetic level could be 'rather scary', said Knoepfler. He also mentioned that the US government has secret task forces and is taking biological warfare seriously.
Then followed a discussion around a second kind of risk – what happens if it works 'too well'? Knoepfler mentioned that one possible outcome would be to successfully change ourselves, for example by creating 'superior bones' in those who would have been born with bone disease. This could create a desire to use the technology in society at large. Moreover, a trend towards genetic modification as enhancement could create an enhanced social class, leading to social stratification and further inequality.
This led on to a discussion about eugenics, which Comfort described as 'the elephant in the room'. Knoepfler said that this resonated with him because his family are Jewish and came from Austria and Hungary. But he said that the 'new' eugenics has been described as a 'kinder, gentler, more positive, liberal eugenics'. Comfort also acknowledged that it is now market driven, being more about individual choice than state control. Knoepfler agreed, but reminded us to consider what choice means. Choice lies with parents, and parents make choices on behalf of their children all the time. Nevertheless, he maintained that changing a genome by design is very different, and the individuals created through this technology are unable to exercise any choice.
What was enjoyable about this conversation was that it did not just focus on the promise and perils. We heard about Knoepfler's own position as a scientist and technophile whose own lab uses CRISPR. But, as a parent, he feels that premature use of CRISPR in humans could have negative consequences for society. We also heard about his inspiration for writing the book. He knew that gene editing was a hot topic yet little had been written about it at the time. Likewise, he realised that, although the public were very visible in discussions about genetically modified food, they seemed to know less, and care little, about the implications for human modification. Referring to the recent Washington summit on genome editing (see BioNews 831), he said that he was disappointed with the level of public involvement. His aim in writing the book was to help the public understand and stimulate them into becoming more actively involved – to get people thinking and arguing. This, he said, is why he chose such a provocative book title.
In response to one viewer who asked whether even talking about this topic could encourage a sense of genetic fundamentalism – the prioritising of genetic explanations above all other aspects of social life. Knoepfler said that discussions can have a positive impact, but agreed they can also become a 'self-fulfilling prophecy'. He pointed to all the 'CRISPRed' animals from last year – including pet micro-pigs – which may have made us collectively more comfortable. 'I wonder if we are getting too comfortable,' he pondered.
Thoughout this discussion, reference was made to the importance of continuing the conversation about gene editing. This online debate, and Knoepfler's accessible book, offer important contributions to this end.