This week in Washington, DC, the National Academy of Sciences is hosting a three-day conference- the International Summit on Human Gene Editing, to examine the implications of new gene editing technology.[1] Through a new technology developed in the past year, gene editing is now being done. The process, known as Crispr-Cas9, is a new procedure that enables scientists to snip out defective genes and replace them with the corrected version, thus treating genetic disease right at the source. A protein called Cas9 functions as a genetic scalpel and repair enzymes enable researchers to seal the resulting gap with new genetic information, thus changing the underlying genetic code.[2] This has exciting promise to deal with a variety of genetic abnormalities more efficiently than traditional gene therapy, which has failed to live up to its initial promise since its inception more than thirty years ago.

In an extension of this technology, Chinese researchers performed a similar kind of gene editing on human embryos, and researchers in the UK are currently seeking to engage in similar research.[3] The embryos were non-viable, and the process had a fairly low success rate, and produced what are called “off target” mutations, in which the procedure affected other parts of the genome in ways scientists hadn’t anticipated. This raised concerns about the procedure’s safety in embryos, particularly since the genetic changes, both intended and unintended, would be inheritable by successive generations, making it a form of what has been long called “germ line therapy.” But it raises for the first time, the ability of science to do the kind of gene splicing and replacement that is necessary for producing “designer children.” Though the researchers insist that they have no intention of using the technology for genetic alteration of traits, the technology to perform gene splicing, though still in its infancy and not yet ready public consumption, is here, waiting for someone to use it to do genetic alterations for non-disease traits. Some in the bioethics community actually believe that parents are morally obligated to engineer their children, to give them the best possible head start in life. Here’s to hoping that the summit this week will consider the ethical implications of heading down the road toward designer children.

[2] Jonathan Rockoff, “Why Gene Editing Technology Has Scientists Excited,” Wall Street Journal (June 28, 2015).

[3] David Cyranoski and Sarah Rearden, “Chinese Scientists Genetically Modify Human Embryos,” Nature (April 22, 2015).