The Genetic Advantage

The UK has given a green light to gene editing in human embryos, and Science Burrito is unashamedly showing its support across social media. This editorial will soon be associated with a number of blog posts to explain exactly what all this means and how it works, but for now, I wanted to spend a bit of time outlining exactly why this work is so important, and such a positive thing, and allay some fears regarding scientists ‘playing God’.

First of all, it is important to understand exactly what has happened here. This is not a Carte Blanch for all scientists everywhere, or even all scientists in the UK, to go ahead and do whatever they like with human embryos. It’s not even close to that, in fact. The Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority reviews research on a case by case basis, and in every successful application, research must be carried out according to a licence agreement held with the HFEA. This is an extremely well regulated area of scientific research.

The whole process is also very transparent. On the HFEA’s own website, it is incredibly easy to find a list of all the research initiatives that have been approved, a run-down of what is necessary to get approval, and even a list of all panel and committee members: the people who are actually making these decisions. These are not people who are trying to hide, because these are not people who have anything to hide.

I hope these two paragraphs alone are enough to convince most people that scientists are not running amok with the human genome. But if you are not convinced yet, then let us consider exactly why these research projects are taking place. And no, it is not so that mad scientists can create clone armies of themselves to take over the world. Although…

This aims of this particular research proposal are to better understand the reasons for miscarriage and infertility. This is an area which is surprisingly poorly understood. By better understanding it, we can vastly improve the efficacy of IVF treatment, which will in turn make it a lot less risky and a lot cheaper. We will know far more about the early stages of foetal development, which will allow us to better guide expectant mothers to give themselves the best chance of carrying to term, as well as how to better care for themselves during their pregnancy.

But it doesn’t end there. This is just the first of, hopefully, many such experiments in the future. Experiments that will help us learn how to avoid developmental issues in new-borns, and perhaps better understand the origins, and so the nature, of a vast number of genetic diseases, the biggest of which is the big C itself. At this point in an embryo’s development, it is basically a cluster of cells growing out of control. Does that sound familiar? By understanding how this growth is controlled and ultimately stopped by the developing embryo, on a genetic level, we may well be able to understand how to stop a cancerous growth dead in its tracks.

Want to know who this will affect? In the UK alone today (which accounts for less than 1% of the world’s population), there are an estimated 25600 cases of cystic fibrosis, 32000 cases of Huntington’s, 6400 cases of spinal muscular atrophy, 51000 of polycystic kidney disease, and nearly 340000 new cases of cancer a year. And not one of the people who make up those statistics is insignificant.

It’s also useful to know exactly how genetics and DNA works. As ever, I will, at some point, go into more detail in a supporting blog post, but for now I will be brief. Basically, your DNA is an instruction book about how to build your body, but also about how to run it. Each cell in your body contains the same DNA as every other cell, but obviously you can’t have your cells doing everything all the time. If you did, eye cells would also be liver cells, bone cells would also be skin cells; it would be, frankly, terrifying. So the most important thing your DNA does is to know when to turn on and off genes at the right times. And it does this via chemical stimulations. So, turning on and off genes, or replacing the chemicals made by damaged genes, are the most important things in fixing many genetic maladies (for instance, turning off replication in cancer cells) and to do this, it can be as easy as taking a pill or having an injection (insulin injections to treat diabetes are a direct example of this).

Now, my intention has always been for this blog to be about honestly presenting science to the public in an understandable and, I hope, enjoyable way. So I want to make it clear here, I in no way believe that all of these diseases will be cured overnight or, indeed, at all. But I would point out that it would not be the first time that science has eradicated, or nearly eradicated, a disease. Small pox, the bovine form of measles rinderpest, and polio are all gone or likely will be gone in the near future. So long as there is a chance that science can perform the same feats of global healing here, then it must surely be worth exploring.

Research like this could save literally millions of lives every year, without even once messing with the DNA of any embryo that will bought to term. They’ll be no army of designer babies. There will just be happier healthier people, from birth to grave, all over the world. It sounds like a good thing to me.

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