The recent movie Blade Runner 2049 paints a dystopian picture of a future full of genetically modified humans with enhanced physical and cognitive capabilities. While the movie is set in the distant future, we could ask how far away this future really is. The debate on human enhancement becomes urgent and real with the recent advancement in successful gene editing in viable human embryos.

Our oberservations

  • In August this year, American scientists successfully repaired a genetic disease in an embryo. And even though CRISPR, the method they used, is controversial, it is nevertheless allowed in several countries.
  • CRISPR is a genome editing tool that can be used to repair genetic diseases in an embryo, such as Huntington’s disease, cystic fibrosis, and Duchenne’s disease, and can in time also serve as an enhancement tool. Advances in human enhancement have multiple frontiers, take, for example, advances in research on longevity.
  • Although she acknowledges the advantages of fixing illnesses, one of the inventors of CRISPR, Jennifer Doudna, is not only positive about the progress. She finds the prospect of creating superhumans disturbing and is of the opinion that the broader public should first discuss the ethics.
  • Genome editing implies a change in human control over the biological world, and, as we noted earlier, various applications are possible in crops and livestock, industrial biotechnology, biomedicine, and human reproduction.
  • Genome editing techniques get faster, simpler, and cheaper. For $159, you can buy a CRISPR kit online and use it to engineer stronger gut bacteria at home.

Connecting the dots

The latest advances in genetic engineering, and CRISPR in particular, lead to a heated debate that ranges from dystopian fear to a utopian embrace of this new step towards designing “better” humans. Countries respond differently to the technique of editing the human genome. Before the success of the American scientists, Chinese scientists had already tried to edit human embryos a few times, as the issue is considered less controversial there. In the Netherlands, the debate is dictated by cautiousness about the risks and consequences, but simultaneously the country does not want to lose its position as a “kennisland”. How to decide whether it is desirable to edit the human genome?
Because of its broader implications, the fact that CRISPR can eliminate diseases does not necessarily suffice to accept the method. CRISPR has its known and unknown risks and unknown effects on future generations. The current human genome is an outcome of evolution and has functions of which many are still unknown to us. Editing the genome can have unforeseen consequences. The human genome can be regarded as our common heritage and also that of future generations, and it is questionable whether a small number of scientists should be allowed to make any changes. The more immediate ethical principles at stake are for example: are we allowed to edit humans (embryos) when they cannot give us their consent?
More generally, allowing any controversial technology to fix specific and urgent problems, e.g. life-threatening diseases, is always a slippery slope. Viagra was initially meant to fix a medical condition, erectile dysfunction, but is nowadays widely sold as a commercial solution to enhance libido. Genetically modified food promised that it could solve world hunger, but so far it has mostly led to the commercial success of a handful of big food corporations.
We know that new inventions, like In-vitro Fertilization (IVF), are often welcomed with skepticism and dystopian images like the creation of Übermenschen. Over time, however, they change from freaky to familiar. It is often an illusion that we can really stop innovations. History suggests that we should embrace these advances and steer them in a favorable direction by updating the existing regulations, by discussing the requirements and limitations of the technique, and by informing the public early on, so that they can change their ideas and do not feel left behind. The replicants in Blade Runner are considered machines that are “owned” by one big corporation. The movie shows us a dark scenario of future generations of human enhancement, and its replicants force us to think about them before they will come into existence.

Implications

  • More research on the risks of, and new regulations on, human genome editing are needed.
  • Broader applications in health care and life sciences.