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'Deepest challenge that our species has ever faced': Stanford professor discusses gene editing ethics

From designer babies to genetically modified food, gene editing has brought many ethical questions to the forefront. A Stanford professor came to campus Tuesday to discuss some of these questions that gene editing presents. 

William Hurlbut, an adjunct professor and senior research scholar of neurobiology at Stanford Medical School, analyzed the potential effects of CRISPR-Cas9 technology, which enables scientists to alter organisms' genes. Referring to CRISPR as the “Swiss Army knife of genetics,” he asserted that it will hold a very important place in the future. 

“This is the deepest challenge that our species has ever faced," he said. "For the first time in four billion years, there’s a species that can go back and edit its own evolution.”

Earth can profit tremendously from this ability to modify genes—but only if used appropriately, Hurlbut said. He praised advancements in ecology and technology, but cautioned that seemingly benign initiatives like as the eradication of disease-carrying mosquitoes may cause unforeseen environmental consequences. 

Furthermore, he anticipated a future where trans-species mutations become commonplace in the quest to discover disease cures, though he did not condone mutating species for entertainment purposes.

“It’s entirely possible that our grandchildren will go to the zoo and see nothing but genetically modified animals,” he said.

In terms of humans, Hurlbut noted CRISPR's vast potential to eliminate inherited diseases, particularly those that afflict children. He recalled a young patient whose sickle cell anemia had ravaged his livelihood. Hurlbut said “it would be extraordinarily wonderful” to help children afflicted by diseases like these. 

Still, Hurlbut questioned civilization’s ability to define “disease.” For instance, he mentioned that those who live with albinism, though able to pursue a fulfilling life in every way physically, may face social challenges from it and want to change it because of that. 

He also recognized the potential to change genes that aren't related to disease to bring about less perspiration, better odor or higher tolerance for pain. Although these gains would attract many buyers, he warned that such a market could create a system of inequity.  

As a warning sign, Hurlbut pointed to the history of eugenics. In the Antebellum South, slaves who attempted to act independently were diagnosed with "drapetomania," and the prescribed cure was flogging. 

Hurlbut was also at the center of a crucial moment in American genetic history—President George W. Bush’s policies on stem cell research. 

Hurlbut worked on the President’s Council for Bioethics during Bush’s two terms, and he encouraged legislation to secure stem cell funding. The Bush administration was in favor of increased stem cell research, but did not want to "creat[e]...or damage.....a human embryo or fetus."

“I worked very hard to get our country to seek an alternative [to the previous ban on funding]," he said. "If we are going to fight about basic aspects, there will be no progress.”

When Bush signed Executive Order 13455 to grant research money to the National Institutes for Health, Hurlbut was pleased that this area received recognition. Throughout those conversations, he gained much appreciation for the “sensible arguments on both sides,” and he wished that representatives had not pitted religion against science.

Now more than ever, Hurlbut explained that issues of morality come into direct conflict with the potential of gene editing. He recently spoke at length with a Chinese scientist who inserted an anti-HIV gene into twin babies. The twins’ father had contracted the virus, and there was a moderate probability that the infants would suffer as a result. This led the scientist to being expelled from his colloquium. Although Hurlbut did not defend his decision, he pointed out the ethical dilemma surrounding the controversy. 

He emphasized that Americans too will face similar questions imminently. As a result, Hurlbut said he expected a revival of cloning embryonic cells and exploration into harvesting aborted fetuses for organ transplants, though he noted that the harvesting practice is controversial.

Ultimately, Hurlbut observed that all of humanity must soon arrive at a consensus on these “species issues” as a matter of global governance and encouraged all audience members to equip themselves with more information on this pressing matter. 

“It is undeniable that the use of genetic engineering…will reach the general public soon,” he said.

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