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The Science and Ethics of Editing Human Embryos

Earlier this month, an influential science advisory group created by the National Academy of Medicine and the National Academy of Science came out in support of what to many may still seem unthinkable -- modifying human embryos to create particular genetic traits.

The concept of genetically modifying human beings has long been a staple of science fiction, but a breakthrough in gene editing technology means that what was once only possible in fiction may fast become a reality.

As that reality approaches it inevitably raises ethical concerns over how this technology could be used to create so-called “designer babies.”

Dr. Darrel Waggoner is the medical director in the Department of Human Genetics at University of Chicago Medicine where he specializes in the treatment of metabolic and genetic disorders in adults and children.

“When technologies are developed, typically, there are some very clear answers as to how the technology could be beneficial but also very commonly some concerns that come along with those technologies that take time and experience and thought to learn how to deal with,” said Waggoner.

“The idea of using this technology to edit human embryos to remove genetic mutations so that embryo can be free of disease is a positive thing,” he said. “The concern and problem is that if you now do research in that setting and you perfect the ability to edit the human embryo in that regard, there’s really nothing that would prevent you from using the technology to make them taller or to give them better eyesight.”

Laurie Zoloth, a professor of religious studies and bioethics and medical humanities at Northwestern University, is skeptical as to how well gene editing technology will actually work in humans.

“Many things work in mice that don’t work in people, so it’s going to have to be fully tested,” said Zoloth. “And the trouble with testing whether it’s safe to alter an embryo is that someone has to agree to have their embryo altered. Then someone has to agree to carry that child with all the attendant risks to term and then raise a child that has been altered in this way. It’s a tremendous leap of faith.”

Zoloth also worries that rules to regulate such research were largely created when most research was government-backed and funded. But she notes that now medical research is often privately funded and therefore less accountable.

“Private funders can choose not to follow the rules and not disclose their research,” Zoloth said.

They can also push the boundaries of what is acceptable.

“What I always say when people ask me about the possibility of rogue scientists doing unethical research is that we have had rules against murder for hundreds of years but still people kill each other,” Zoloth said.

Waggoner and Zoloth join Chicago Tonight to discuss human gene editing and some of the ethical issues it raises.

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