Why are we OK with one gene manipulation study, but not another?

Last week a huge stir was caused when Nature reported on a Chinese paper which described a new technique which could be used to alter the genes in a developing human embryo. As stated in a Science news article, the aim of the paper was said to alter a mutated gene to prevent a blood disorder, and despite the fact that the technique actually didn’t really work very well there was an ethical uproar. In fact, both Nature and Science, the most prestigious journals in the industry, refused to publish the paper on ethical grounds. Many researchers have demanded an end to this line of research.

Just a day before Science published their news story describing the ethical backlash to this human embryo gene editing paper, they published another story. In fact, it was on a subject I have talked about here before.  A lab in San Diego is working on techniques to edit the mitochondrial DNA of an embryo to prevent disease. Sound familiar? But while there is a brief mention of safety and ethics (one sentence to be exact), for the most part this study is presented as a promising new technique.

So why are these two studies being treated so differently? Is it because the Chinese study was actually done on human embryos, while the second study has only been done on mice? This doesn’t make much sense to me, if a technique is being designed with the intent of eventually being used on humans, it should be the technique called into ethical question, not whether it’s being done on human or mouse (the human embryos in the Chinese experiment where embryos that would not have survived anyway due to other, more drastic genetic mutations).

Of course, when we talk of gene editing there is always the Gattaca fear, that the rich will be able to get designer babies and the gap between the rich and the poor will be cemented genetically as well as financially. And so it is understandable why people would get a bit fussy if we start perfecting those techniques, even if it is with the intent of preventing horrific diseases. But here’s what I don’t get, the Chinese technique didn’t even work. The San Diego technique did. So shouldn’t we be freaking out about the one that worked even if it was done on mice, since the plan is to do it on humans next? Maybe it’s because the work is done on mitochondrial DNA, which has nothing really to do with your physical appearance. But still, what can be done with one type of DNA should be pretty easy to jump to the rest of our DNA.

And should we be freaking out at all? I’m not about to go supporting paying a little extra to change your embryo so your kid can be faster, stronger and smarter. But I am a huge fan of having the ability to change your embryo so you don’t have to watch your kid slowly die from a terrible disease.

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About Hannah Rosen

I am a PhD candidate at Hopkins Marine Station of Stanford University. I am currently conducting research on color change in squid skin, but my real passion is making science accessible to those outside of the field so that everyone can love it as much as I do! Science is not just for the professionals. It is fun and something that everyone can and should enjoy. Deep down we are all science nerds, you just may not know it yet!

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