29 Apr Embryo DNA Experiments Hold Lessons For Tech
Western scientists are up in arms about a new experiment to alter the DNA of an embryo. The real issue isn’t ethics, however. It is whether it is the smart path to be taking in the first place.
Researchers in China had the audacity (or immorality?) to try to alter the DNA of a human embryo in an attempt to cure it of a disease. The paper came out in the journal Protein and Cell today, and many Western scientists have gone literally bonkers.
Western scientists have called it immoral, irresponsible, and dangerous — and those are the kind words. Before we all get too crazy, I’d like to inject a little IT logic into this debate and think about it the way we would any new technology.
For a minute let’s put aside the moral argument and talk about what it is these scientists actually did.
The researchers at the Sun Yat-sen University took 86 nonviable human embryos and tried to alter their DNA through a process called CRISPR/Cas9. Specifically, they wanted to remove a gene which causes a sometimes fatal blood disorder without disturbing any other genes. Only 71 embryos survived the process at all. Only 28 removed the gene in question. And in all 28 where it was removed, other genes were unintentionally altered
Let’s be clear. This is not like last week’s SpaceX near miss. This was an epic failure on the way to trying to do something which is likely still decades or centuries away. Even had it been a rip-roaring success, none of these embryos would have been people.
The general complaint is that this kind of thing has been off-limits in Western science because some people — mostly Westerners — find it unethical. We don’t want to mess with our species. We don’t know what unplanned harm we will do. It has societal and religious implications that clearly require some debate. Fine. But I’d like to point out a few things:
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