Genetic engineering is a field that studies the modification of organism through the manipulation of their genetic material. It is a method in which a new animal or plant can be produced from specific genes obtained from a different animal or plant. The required trait for that gene will then be conveyed in the new organism (N. R. C., 2004). This method is a highly controversial subject within the scientific and social world. The application of genetic engineering is prevalent in several fields already such as agriculture and medicine.
Although there are alternatives to genetically modified crops, such as organic foods, there is an economic and time saving allure to it. And while genetic engineering has produced countless benefits in the field of science and for the wellbeing of human survivability, there are some aspects of the field that have become controversial in the ethical field. One of these topics is the idea of human genetic engineering. Human genetic engineering is a heatedly debatable topic since a selection of people believe that being able to alter the natural genome is playing God.
They believe that scientists do not own any jurisdiction in the manipulation of nature (John H., 2002). Due to this preconception, there is disapproval to the advancement of this discipline by people who do not grasp the significance in genetic modification. They may, understandably, even fear what gene altering may steer to for us as a society and as humans.
Discoveries throughout history owned by genetic engineering has guided us to the development of numerous inventions directly leading to various applications utilized to benefit society (Patra, 2015).
For example, it has been said this method could allow an individual with two copies of the Huntington’s disease gene to produce a child immune to the disease. It also has the ability to let parents “enhance” their children by including a resistance to cancer or HIV infection (Dresser, 2004). Besides the vast animal, plant, and other laboratory research, the evaluation of the safety and efficiency for genetic modification of embryos for clinical use would be required for human trials. With these trials, in vitro fertilized embryos would first be genetically altered and then relocated to the uterus for incubation and maturation. Therefore, the wellbeing and condition of the future child would spark a prominent ethical concern (Dresser, 2004). It is vital to understand the implications and risks of something as sensitive as human genetic engineering, but it is undeniable that this approach could majorly benefit society. Not only does the theory of human genetic engineering remedy genetic disorders, but it also crafts an optimistic viewpoint concerning a variety of ailments. For many generations now, genetic manipulation has been practiced on other species by humans.
The breeding of animals and plants for a specific target such as dogs, horses, corn, etc. have been long performed, but the term genetic engineering only been originated in 1932 (Eisenberg, et. al., 1997). It is a technology utilized on animals and plants for ages and is now being contemplated to be operated on human genes. In 1994, Oswald Avery and his colleagues discovered gene therapy, the “application of genetic principles to the treatment of human disease” (Eisenberg, et. al., 1997). The transmission of genes through viruses was first determined in Salmonella where they learned that the transferring of genes can be done within the nucleic acids. The incorporation of viral genomes into the cell genome were found to be responsible for cell transformation, according to Eisenberg. In the 1970s, recombinant DNA technology indicated the launch of a new era for biology (Hsu, et. al., 2014). The 70’s gifted molecular biologists the ability to change and influence DNA molecules for the first time, accomplishing the opportunity to examine genes and controlling them to create cutting edge biotechnology and medicine. The latest developments in genome engineering technologies have ignited new innovation in the research of biology. Hsu (2014) states, “Rather than studying DNA taken out of the context of the genome, researchers can now directly edit or modulate the function of DNA sequences in their endogenous context in virtually any organism of choice, enabling them to elucidate the functional organization of the genome at the systems level, as well as identify causal genetic variations.” In recent years, a nuclease-based genome editing tool has been created that allows accurate targeting and effective alteration of various eukaryotes. From the recent group of gene editing tools, the most prominent of them is known as Cas9, an endonuclease from the “microbial adaptive immune system” CRISPR (clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats).
This nuclease is effortlessly targeted to practically any location on the genome by a short RNA guide. The CRISPR tool has been recommended as a means of treatment for various human diseases, particularly those with a genetic source, such as diabetes, heart disease, schizophrenia, and autism (Hsu, et. al., 2014) and is a remarkable device to advocate gene therapy. There are four potential applications of gene therapy. There is somatic cell gene therapy which inserts, removes, or modifies genes within a human cell. This method engages in the rectification of a genetic blemish in somatic body cells, which is mainly helpful in substituting an abnormal or absent enzyme or protein. There is germline gene therapy in which there is gene modification within the gametes and embryos. This calls for the addition of a gene into a patient’s reproductive tissue, causing the rectification of the disease in the offspring too. These changes would occur in every cell of the body.
Germline gene therapy is currently being researched and has yet to be trialed on a human. There is also enhancement genetic engineering where the addition of a gene is executed in order to develop and improve a specific trait, such as hair color or height. Lastly, there is eugenic genetic engineering which seeks to change and better complex traits like personality or character (Eisenberg, et. al., 1997). Eugenics is one of the most infamous and controversial topics regarding human genetic engineering and is more of a far-fetched idea rather than a plausible one. Currently, only somatic cell gene therapy is practical and there are already ethical debates on its features and consequences. Modern research goals to alter human genes include somatic cell gene transfer involvements and this form of intervention is created to change somatic cells in the body of the subject. Scientists running this type of gene transfer investigation attempt to distribute operational and effective genes to adults and children using a rather common method: through genetically modified viruses. With a successful trial, the virus would infect the correct target cells with the appropriate normal genes that are then integrated into the genome of cell. The genes would then carry out the appropriate function (Dresser, 2004).
It is possible for recessive diseases to be responsive to treatment by just an inclusion of a single gene. A few problems which need to be solved is the ability to access the affected tissue, the exact regulation of the specified gene, and the probability of the infliction being permanent by birth. The substitution of a dominant gene or the abnormal nucleotides from that gene is able to amend dominant disorders. But, in the case of recessive disorders, they are not the source of a majority of critical diseases. Somatic cell gene therapy can be viewed as a normal addition of frequent and common medical procedures. Presently, there are numerous trials being worked on that include gene altering at medical centers globally. The aim is to accomplish short-term goals where in a multistep procedure, every individual clinical trial is deemed to be an “intermediate step,” and to outline the possible advantages and disadvantages for participating subjects (Eisenberg, et. al., 1997). So, the question is: should the research human genetic engineering be pursued? Do the advantages outweigh the possible perils? A significant advantage of this area is the idea of curing diseases and disorders in fetuses. Performing a genetic screening for a fetus leads way to gaining permission for treatment. Eventually, the increasing sweep of disease can be influenced in the upcoming generations.
The mass-production of human insulin in bacteria was one of the greatest achievements created through genetic engineering (Goeddel, et.al., 1978). This was a revolutionary discovery that greatly benefitted the world. However, the opportunity to completely diminish genetic diseases is probably the most promising concept of human genetic engineering; “if no genetic diseases are passed on to offspring, they will cease to exist” (Eisenberg, et. al., 1997). Consequently, the rate of abortion would drastically decrease since the difficult judgement of aborting a fetus due to a genetic disease would not have to be confronted. The capability of parents to pick and choose specific desired genes, such as for appearance or character, for their offspring is a rather drastic yet possible option. This thought appears keener to science fiction, but if researchers are able to connect a gene to a trait, genetic modification is very possible. For example, if researchers determine a specific group of genes to be linked with intelligence, those genes can be enhanced and improved to be transferred to embryos. Even more radically, this notion can be applied to the opportunity to insert traits from animals into humans. Echolocation in bats or the eyesight of an owl are just a few possible abilities that could be taken advantage of. With numerous possibilities, one could find it difficult to conceive as to why this could be disagreeable. Nonetheless, it is necessary to apply limits to something as revolutionary as genetic engineering. Is the appeal of governing our evolution so dominant that the possible risks facing our species by genetically engineering ourselves is ignored? There are disadvantages to this field that may be ignored or unnoticed but must be addressed before any sort of advancement is made. The anticipation of forming genetic superhumans could potentially blur better judgement. The more reoccurring ethical argument centers around the idea of “playing God.”
Ethical arguments, however, are simply opinion-based. Hence, ethical outlooks cannot be considered as evidence whether it is for the continuation of genetic engineering, or the elimination of it. But, the one thing that can be agreed on is the fact that it is highly possible that, without proper research and clinical trials, the damages of gene altering could be irreversible. Particular topics must be seriously contemplated when the subject of human genetic engineering is being deliberated, such as society and social structure. The ability to change the phenotypic traits of children and/or incorporate eugenics to alter their personality or character would almost give a feel of creating a sub species of humans. Naturality would be questioned and from a social aspect, a degree of classism may reoccur within America. With this in mind, regulation of research and control of practice is imperative. The ability to modify the genetic code should not be applied to those who seek to exclusively change appearance or character. The research, first and foremost, should be applied to solve genetic health problems and diseases. The focus of academic discussions regarding the altering of genes were on how it can affect ethical and policy concerns if this practice was broadly accessible. Mostly, “those who contend that such modifications are desirable and inevitable and those who challenge this view emphasize the technology’s broad ethical and social implications, often overlooking the ethical issues that would arise earlier in the technology’s development” (Dresser, 2004). Even though several experts have stated some worry regarding the morality of using humans for testing, the concerns for the research have not been observed thoroughly enough.
For example, a group assembled by the American Association for the Advancement of Science explained the essential preclinical research developments needed before any deliberation of human trials. But what the group did not assess was the federal policies on human subjects. Also, a current philosophical evaluation recognized that risks and doubts would be exhibited concerning human trials for germline genetic therapy involvements, but merely suggested “careful scrutiny of any protocols for experiments involving those interventions” (Dresser, 2004). The policy and ethical works overlooked the human subject phase of technology advancement where scholars and authors just did not commit enough attentiveness to the human part of research which is important in determining if certain health interventions are safe and appropriate. Conversely, there was not enough attentiveness by policymakers, as well, concerning these interventions. Even though federal research policies encompass rules and directions important to creating adequate preimplantation embryo genetic modification (PGM) studies, major policy gaps are in the way. The boundaries and limitations of federal policies leading the different areas of research and safety of human participants exposes the uneven coverage on it (Dresser, 2004). There have been a few proposals to research PGM in humans that would be watched over by federal organizations who oversee gene transfer research.
The Recombinant DNA Advisory Committee (RAC) of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) evaluates propositions to operate the genetic transfer research in establishments obtaining federal funds for any sort of recombinant DNA research. If the research is privately funded, the RAC does not need to assess it, but officials recommend that privately funded sponsors present the research for assessment. Technically, even federally funded genetic transfer propositions cannot be turned down from being executed, since the RAC does not necessarily have the authority. But, a full RAC assessment and debate may be needed by federal officials to bring up “important scientific, safety, medical, ethical, or social issues” (R.D.A.C., 2002). Since the public can be involved in the assessment and debate, sponsors could encounter rigorous criticisms if they ignore the RAC’s advices. Lastly, information and material from the RAC are accessible to institutional review boards. They can reject propositions that ignore advice from the RAC regarding the protection of human participants (Dresser, 2004). The past 30 years, policy consultations of human embryo research concentrated on studies that involve the eradication of premature embryos. However, when innovative procedures, such as genetic engineering, aim for embryos that are likely to be relocated for maturation, the wellbeing of the future offspring could be disturbed. Consequently, the procedures should be watched over and assessed conforming to regulatory policies. The board was asked to contemplate if this sort of research was morally okay and if it should be qualified for federal funding.
Dresser (2004) states that in the report, the board was worried about IVF safety and requested the researchers to gather information and data on the feasible dangers imposed on children. But policies for human subjects were not determined in the end (Dresser, 2004). When it comes to research that includes genetic alteration of embryos that are to be fostered and matured into infants, there is inadequate protection for human subjects. Because there are shortcomings and insufficiencies regarding the current policies, it indicates how unprepared the officials are when it comes to PGM studies and research. They are ill-equipped to answer to the possible risks that may occur during experiments (Dresser, 2004). This does not mean that it is acceptable to drop a whole field that can offer significant and great potential to society. Analysts and researchers ought to counter the shortcomings of the policies. Professionals and specialists in related fields should help lead genetic modification studies by creating ethically and morally defendable rules and guidelines. If these efforts are not taken, it will be difficult, if not impossible, to take a step forward in significantly reducing disease, disorders, and death rates. The current progressions in science have made utilizing somatic cell gene therapy as treatment for grave genetic disorders possible. The performance for germline gene engineering is also in progress, but society should deliberate its stance and approach for the intent of genetic enhancement.
The idea of eugenics is still simply theoretical and ay be untouched for a long while. However advantageous genetic engineering sounds to eradicate many illnesses and enhance certain positive traits, it is important to understand the limitations and risks for it. Gene therapy, overall, should be utilized to preserve dignity and the wellbeing of those who have lost it. There must be a limit to everything, so all the possibilities that genetic modification can bring about must be narrowed down to procedures that can benefit the health of society ethically. Genetic engineering has the potential to shape the future for society. There are those who believe it can bring upon great improvement and beneficence, and there are those who believe it has the potential to harm society. It is likely that human genetic modification will continue to be researched on and may lead to one of the two paths, but it is imperative to control the direction of this field. This intervention has great potential benefits and it would seem absurd to not investigate further. Regulations and control of practices are crucial with the tampering of something as complex as the human genome, so one must proceed with caution and with the intent of helping those in need.