Creating Frankenstein? The Ethics of Gene Modification

by Ella Scher ‘23

Humans have long held in the highest respect and fear those who they believe have the power to “play God.” This fear derives from the oldest of times, first documented in a novel, perhaps, in Mary Shelley’s Romantic novel “Frankenstein,” in which “a pale student of unhallowed arts” sets out to be a modern Prometheus and to “renew life where death had apparently devoted the body to corruption.” 

Now imagine, if you will, a technology that would allow scientists to delve deep into the human body to locate a particular strand of DNA–and then eliminate it. The possibilities are endless; a cure for cancer, for leukemia, for the current Covid-19 virus, even for the common cold might be found. However, the ethics of this treatment are hotly debated. Would it be right to allow the common man the power to defy Mother Nature itself?

CRISPR-Cas9 (Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats and CRISPR-associated protein 9) has generated excitement in the scientific community because it is more efficient, faster and cheaper than other genome editing methods. CRISPR is based on a natural gene editing method in the bacteria. When invading viruses attack the body, CRISPR maps the virus using bits of virus DNA and uses them to create layouts known as CRISPR arrays. When the virus attacks again, the CRISPR arrays produce RNA segments which render the virus harmless. Most research on gene editing is now in the testing phase and is being looked at for the treatment and possible elimination of such diseases as sickle cell disease, cystic fibrosis, and hemophilia. 

However, ethical concerns arise when the technologies, such as CRISPR are mentioned in relation to human genome editing. Most changes made with genome editing technologies are only made to the somatic cells (tissues) and are not passed down through generations. However, if changes were made to egg and sperm cells, we could potentially eliminate certain diseases in future generations. This process is called germline cell and embryo genome editing, but many ethical challenges arise when one considers what exactly would be changed. 

Would people be able to change height, intelligence, appearance? Would mental illnesses become a thing of the past?, a weekly international science journal, argues that “In this quest to improve the human race, the strengths of our diversity could be lost, and the rights of already vulnerable populations could be jeopardized.” Despite this, many experiments with the human genome have already begun in China and America, none including sperm or egg cells, so no possible mutations will be passed down. Sam Kulkarni, CEO of the group CRISPR Therapeutics, which tests CRISPR-based genome editing around sickle cell disease, argues that it is a perfectly safe procedure, saying that it will be beneficial to the human race. Many people, scientist and nonscientist alike, have voiced protests, some scientists believe that these new trials could be perfectly safe: “If it’s done well and carefully, I’m not so worried, to be honest,” says Robin Lovell-Badge, a British geneticist and stem cell scientist. Others disagree, saying that it is unethical and immoral to alter the human genome. 

However, an international scandal occurred two years ago, when Chinese scientist He Jiankui used CRISPR to edit the HIV gene in twin baby girls, causing them unknown and unstable mutations. Jiankui claimed that both were now safe from ever contracting HIV, but the genes that he edited also made them far more susceptible to the West Nile virus, influenza, and other diseases which could prove deadly to them with their new genetic makeup. Jiankui ended up being investigated and subsequently fired from his university. 

The jury is still out on whether or not genome modification technology will prove its worth to the human race, but we can be certain that new developments are just around the corner. We can only hope that the results are not as deplorable as those mentioned in Mary Shelley’s Gothic horror, in which Victor Frankenstein recounts upon viewing his dismal creation; “[D]reams that had been my food and pleasant rest for so long a space, were now become a hell to me; and the change was so rapid, the overthrow so complete!”