Nature itself has always been a great inspiration for the human brain to mimic the natural phenomena or processes for a better engineering and technology. Gene editing is one of such techniques through which genes can be altered, deleted or inserted to an organism’s genome. It is basically an offshoot of human intervention to nature to treat genetic diseases for betterment and improvement of human race. The most talked about, powerful, quick, efficient, easy, revolutionary but controversial gene editing tool is the CRISPR (clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats) naturally used by bacteria as a defense system to deactivate or kill viral genes which infects them. Man mimicked this natural technology and utilized it as a cheap and easy tool to edit genes, to create designer organisms (because it can be directly used in embryos), to do basic biological research, to develop better biotechnological products, to treat some dangerous genetic diseases.
Although achievements of this technology have been quite remarkable in improving human health but at the same time it has given rise to serious ethical implications and violated the basic human genetic rights and privacy. The evolution of these bioethical issues in this context invariably questioned the use of gene editing in altering human embryos and the implications of such a powerful technology on human cultures and societies.
Altering nature and natural phenomenon has become a strong argument against geneediting because it is being felt that man will ultimately be responsible for creating imbalance, chaos, crisis and alteration among the various life forms including human themselves. This has finally given rise to a greater scientific controversy and terrifying gene editing science labelled as rogue science. It has, therefore, exposed the negativity and horrible aspects of gene editing. In fact the emergence of rogue science is seen in a very positive manner by the scientific community and government bodies to raise awareness about the threats and dangers of modern science and technology in the hands of rogue scientists working just for personal reputation and recognition and not caring for ethics, laws and regulations governing biological science and technology.
Therefore, science is not all about positive discoveries, building facts, generating knowledge and exposing mysteries but negative too in the form of rogue science. Despite the presence of relevant laws and regulations to check the menace of biomedicine and gene editing technology, rogue science is striking again and again crossing the well-established boundaries of bioethics governing research. We have many cases and examples of gene editing and transgenic approach alone in humans which have become part of the rogue science, however in this article i shall be mentioning the most controversial recent cases which have emerged during the last six months of scientific research and attracted the worldwide media and scientific community.
For example, quite recently in China, human brain genes (genes involved in brain development) were inserted into rhesus monkey embryos to make the human like brains in monkeys with the intention to provide insights into the unique evolution of human intelligence. This has raised questions about the ethics of gene editing experiments in human beings, as it is seen ethically fraught scientific endeavours, and not something we should cheer upon.
Similarly, a most recent case of gene editing came from Greece wherein a baby with DNA from three people was borne using the much talked and controversial fertility procedures of IVF (mother’s egg, father’s sperm and another egg (containing mitochondrial DNA) from a female donor as a measure to treat or prevent mitochondrial diseases.
Earlier, the much debated and controversial instance of rogue science emerged in November, 2018 when Chinese Scientist – He Jiankui of Southern University of Science and Technology Schenzen (China) produced the first genetically modified twin babies resistant to HIV infection by CRISPR technology. Prof. Jianku strategically edited certain genes of human embryos by CRISPR which otherwise is banned in China and worldwide for its use in human reprogenetics. Therefore, this scientific breakthrough has violated the bioethics and integrity of scientific research as claimed by the worldwide scientific communities including China itself.
What basically people fear is that if these gene edited babies happen to transmit such modified genes to future generations, it will have serious irreversible evolutionary consequences in the history of human evolution. Therefore this intelligent design of made to order or choice or desire babies has been taken seriously by the scientific community and investigations have been initiated into this secret work and conduct due to its violation of academic ethics and rules. In fact this particular scientist has not been paid any kind of salary or funding since February, 2019 by the Chinese government.
The above controversial gene editing cases in human beings have created a storm in the scientific community thanks to the bioethics honoured by world biologists. These have opened new doors and possibilities of understanding the intentions and greed of human beings to play with the nature. There is also the fear that CRISPR use in human clinical trials like IVF and reprogenetics can inadvertently wipe out and rearrange the blue print of life – the DNA in such a way that human health may not get benefitted but imperilled.
The writer is an assistant professor of Zoology at the Islamia College, Srinagar.