Scientists have developed tools that don’t just alter human DNA but introduce or remove traits that can be passed down to the subject’s children. Known as germline gene editing, this technique offers hope that certain hereditary health conditions can be cured, while others might be prevented. In fact, a rogue Chinese scientist has altered the genome of twin human embryos, trying to create sisters who would be resistant to HIV. But He Jiankui’s actions earned him three years in prison, a ban from reproductive research and global opprobrium. One reason: The world is still grappling with the ethical implications and jaw-dropping potential of this new technology.

Utopian Hopes

For as long as humans have existed, we’ve developed technologies that help us to survive and thrive as a species, from fire and wooden tools to solar power and the internet. In simple terms, gene editing is one more example, not unlike vaccines or MRI machines. But this one could also become our next great leap, a tool that helps us to live longer but also to experience healthier, happier lives. It could also enable us to alleviate a great deal of human suffering.

Consider Huntington’s disease, an incurable hereditary condition that causes nerve cells to break down and die. Symptoms start with mood disorders and graduate to difficulty speaking or walking and uncontrollable body movements. It affects 5 to 10 in 100,000 Europeans, with similar prevalence in people of European descent. Many die by suicide. This is just one condition gene editing could treat. “There are more than 10,000 single genetic mutations that collectively affect probably hundreds of millions of people around the world,” says Shoukhrat Mitalipov, a biologist at Oregon Health and Science University. Up to 5 percent of babies are at risk of being severely affected with genetic disorders. Could they be saved by removing certain sequences of DNA?

Further, humans could be enhanced. Countries such as the United States, France and China are already exploring the idea of genetically engineered “super-soldiers.” In the style of comic book heroes like Captain America, these warriors could be equipped with greater strength and athleticism or resistance to chemical or biological weapons. Gene editing would let them pass those traits on to their offspring. Similar genetic enhancements could become part of our everyday lives, granting individuals new skills and abilities. Inventors gifted with greater creativity or super-intelligent scientists could spawn innovations that benefit us all. What if the key to curing cancer lies within the mind of a genetically enhanced human?

Besides, the cat’s already out of the bag, according to Helen O’Neill, a molecular geneticist from University College London. “Far too much energy is spent on speculation and dystopia, and much more energy should be spent on real risks and applying the technology so that we understand it better, because it will be done elsewhere and is being done elsewhere.” 

Dystopian Fears

What is the true cost of gene editing? We may not know until it’s too late. It’s tough to argue against a treatment that reduces the horrifying impact of genetic disorders, but alongside that promise, we must consider the risks for individual patients and how such a technology might change society as we know it. Even our place in the universe.

Our understanding of how genes work together with other elements is still limited. That makes manipulating them a risky prospect. The babies edited by He experienced health problems at birth. Did these issues occur naturally, or were they side effects of his work? We don’t know. More broadly, we could risk inadvertently introducing new genetic disorders that will now be passed on to future generations.

Science fiction has been wrestling with genetic engineering for decades, often hinting at eugenics and warning against caste-based futures. In his 1932 novel “Brave New World,” Aldous Huxley describes a system that gives embryos traits to suit pre-assigned roles — like limited intelligence for the working class. In the 1997 film “Gattaca,” people conceived naturally are called “in-valids” because they lack enhanced attributes. It’s not difficult to imagine a dictatorship using super-soldiers to crush dissent. 

The free market presents its own fears. “Where are the people who are most likely to benefit and are they going to have access?” asks Francoise Baylis, a recently retired bioethicist from Canada’s Dalhousie University. Current gene therapies bear million-dollar price tags. Such costs would likely make the treatment uninsurable. What happens when cures or enhanced traits are only available to those with great wealth?

On a grander scale, gene editing could change what it means to be human, a concept central to the faiths that guide most people through the world. The 1993 film “Jurassic Park” confronts the question of “playing God” through an imaginary zoo of dinosaurs brought back to life using fossilized DNA. “Your scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could,” says Dr. Ian Malcolm, as portrayed by Jeff Goldblum, “that they didn’t stop to think if they should.”  

This story appears in the September issue of Deseret Magazine. Learn more about how to subscribe.