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The tools for engineering the human race are here. But should we use them? 

At Future of People conference, debate on gene drives cautions responsibility, draws comparisons to eugenics.

By Amy MacMillan Bankson  |  December 8, 2016

2016-Futureofpeople

Kevin Esvelt answers a question as part of a panel with Aubrey de Grey (left) and Antonio Regalado.

Imagine a world without malaria. It could happen. Scientists today have come up with a way to genetically modify mosquitos so that they no longer carry the deadly disease. But should they?

Kevin Esvelt, an assistant professor at the MIT Media Lab, who runs the Sculpting Evolution Group, spoke about the potential impacts of this new technology, referred to as gene drives, at the Dec. 3 Future of People conference at the MIT Media Lab. Gene drive systems get their name from their ability to drive the preferential inheritance of a genetic modification throughout the genome of a target species. In other words, after enough generations have passed, the new gene becomes pervasive in the genome of the target species. The genetic modification to mosquitos could prevent them from carrying malaria.

What about using gene drive technology to modify the human genome? That’s possible, experts at the conference said.

Esvelt spoke on a panel entitled “The Future of the Human Body,” along with Aubrey de Grey, chief science officer of the SENS Research Foundation, and Antonio Regalado, senior editor for biomedicine at MIT Technology Review.

The technology is enabled by the gene-editing system CRISPR, which allows scientists to easily and quickly remove, add, or alter parts of the DNA sequence. What should society do with this technology? If someone accidentally releases a gene drive and there are unintended consequences, public trust in the scientific community would erode, Esvelt said.

Scientists working in these fields need to share their ideas and research proposals before the experiments even begin, said Esvalt, who has cautioned about the moral implications of gene drives.

Designer babies
Several years ago in a series of articles, MIT Technology Review examined “engineering” the human race, which added to the debate on whether it would be acceptable to genetically modify people, said Regalado.

Just last year, the organizing committee for the International Summit on Human Gene Editing released a statement that encouraged basic research but said it would be “irresponsible” to make genetically modified humans now. A follow-up, comprehensive consensus study is now underway and is expected to be completed early next year.

Panel moderator Steve Fuller, a sociology professor at the University of Warwick, asked the panelists how these developments are related to the controversial topic of eugenics.

Esvelt pointed out that the early eugenics movement forcibly sterilized innocent people. They didn’t have a choice. And, it’s why Esvelt has worked on developing the “daisy drive,” a limited function version of a gene drive that does not go on indefinitely.

“We have this daisy drive concept where the drive system loses an essential element every time it gets copied. And, when it runs out, it stops. So if you are making a change to an incredibly complex system that we do not understand—and that applies to the human body … you are not going to be able to reliably anticipate all of the consequences and side effects, so you should start small.”

Asked for the need to develop policies governing gene editing in humans, Esvelt replied that the closest we will come to controlling the genes of our offspring will be using genetics to pick which embryos will be implanted in an in vitro fertilization procedure. “We are almost certainly not going to use CRISPR to edit the human genome at all,” Esvelt said.

Regalado agreed and said, “You use the word eugenics … and it is a bad word … but as soon as we do eugenics and we like it, we don’t call it that anymore,” he said.

The intersection between science and technology and how it will affect mankind can be frightening, but not moving forward is not a choice, said keynote speaker and author David Brin. Human beings have already gone through several iterations of augmentation, such as using glass lenses to improve vision. Genetically altering human beings “terrifies” many, as does artificial intelligence and the potential for a “robotics crisis,” Brin said.

But choosing not to proceed with augmentation and technology is far worse, he said, but any work considered should be conducted with openness.

“We need to show that we are aware of the dangers and the one way in which we can deal with them is transparency [and by] keeping all the discussion open and above the board and inspecting all the dangers ahead of time,” Brin said.