There are concerns in the scientific community over the threat that rogue or amateur scientists messing with DNA might pose to humanity.
Professor Christiane Woopen, executive director of the Cologne Centre for Ethics, Rights, Economics and Social Sciences of Health (CERES), has said:
“You only have to think about those sci-fi scenarios where embryos are edited to become very powerful soldiers who don’t need sleep, don’t feel pain and go into battle very effectively.”
“Even if such a scenario is biologically unrealistic, there is a risk that people try to do something like this. We are talking about powerful technology that can be significantly harmful to our health and life when it gets into the wrong hands.”
Gene-editing is already used to confer advantageous traits to crops and livestock. A major international conversation has emerged over whether it is appropriate to genetically alter humans. It picked up traction last year following the birth of Lulu and Nana, two Chinese girls said to be the world’s first humans whose DNA was altered using the revolutionary CRISPR-Cas9 technology, ostensibly to make them immune to HIV.
In August of this year, the World Health Organisation launched a global registry to track all research on human genome editing. However, critics say it is not only humans who should be put on the list.
Christiane Woopen warns: “You could, for example, gene-edit bacteria which are very infectious and cause disastrous diseases, and which can be transmitted from one person to another in a very easy way, creating an epidemic with a very burdening disease.”
“The techniques are quite simple to apply – you don’t need to be a great expert to use CRISPR technology. You can order gene editing kits on the internet and they are not too expensive. There are public laboratory spaces where you can already do gene editing yourself. There has to be regulation in this area, such as licencing and registration, so we know what is going where and who is using what.”
The CERES is currently drawing up recommendations for the European Commission on the ethics of gene editing. The report will be issued in the first half of 2020.