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Advancement in genetic enhancement potentially problematic

By Hannah Stewart

Section: News

March 13, 2015

A futuristic science fiction reality may be closer than we think. On Monday evening, in Gerstenzang 124, Jamie Metzl presented on the topic of the future of the human race. His lecture, titled “Homo Sapiens 2.0: Genetic Enhancements, Ethics and the Faith of Humanity,” was hosted by Professor Larry Wangh (BIOL/HSSP) and his class, “Genes and the Human Story” (BISC 2b) but was open to the Brandeis and Waltham communities.

Metzl is currently a senior advisor of a global investment firm and a senior fellow on the Atlantic Council. He has previously served on the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee, the U.S. State Department, the National Security Council and as a Human Rights Officer for the United Nations in Cambodia. In November, he published a crime and mystery novel titled “Genesis Code,” which revolved around the human genetics revolution.

Metzl prefaced his argument with the caveat, “I am not a scientist. I think of myself as a person who thinks deeply about what are the future implications of current technologies…”

On Feb. 23, the United Kingdom’s House of Lords passed a bill which will allow clinical trials of embryonic mitochondrial transfers.

Mitochondria is known as the “powerhouse” of the cell; it is responsible for transforming food molecules into a form of energy that the cell can use. Some women have genetic mitochondrial diseases that, if passed on to a child, will result in heart and brain defects. In an embryonic mitochondrial transfer, the egg from the genetic mother will be combined with the sperm of the genetic father to create an embryo. Then this combined genetic material will be removed from the original egg and placed into an egg from a donor female with healthy mitochondria. This new, genetically-engineered embryo will be implanted back into the genetic mother, where it will continue to grow and develop as a traditional fetus.

With the passage of this bill, Metzl proposes a new future for the human race.

“Let’s just say that the average woman who’s having her eggs extracted [for the process of in-vitro fertilization] … you have your ten eggs, you fertilize them with sperm … you would take two cells from each one of those and then you test them, you do a full genome sequencing on each of those cells … you can tell gender … Tay Sachs and cystic fibrosis … Down Syndrome…”

Armed with this knowledge, parents “can screen early-stage embryos and then you can … select out certain things that we don’t want based on our understanding of what the genome says.”
This may seem harmless, possibly even beneficial to human health. However, some view this technological development as a threat to what it means to be human. They fear that it might create an overly aggressive and competitive culture where each individual’s fate would be decided prior to their birth.

Metzl continued with his lecture, outlining one possible future. He predicted that one day, this screening process will became cheap and fast enough for millions of complete genomes to become compiled. With this information, geneticists could then reliably identify sequences of genes linked to specific physical traits and intelligence.

“Let’s just say that the United States blocks advancement of this technology, but other jurisdictions, let’s say China or Korea or somebody else, decides to go forward. Then what are we gonna do about it? … One thing that you can say, certainly about today’s Chinese government is that they are very comfortable with … population engineering … and thinking about children as tools for the glory of the state … I started to think about, well, what would it mean ‘x’ years into the future … if the United States learned that China had a secret genetic enhancement program … they were taking these super-enhanced kids and putting them … in specialty schools for science and math and engineering and business,” said Metzl. “Are we going to be able to complete?”

Metzl has no desire nor intention to cause undue alarm and panic. Rather, his primary goal is to open up dialogue about this topic and force policy-makers to think about this hypothetical situation. “The fundamental problem that we have, as I see it, is that the science is advancing exponentially. There’s nothing that I’ve mentioned at all today, that can’t be done with future generations of technologies that already exist … the science is advancing exponentially, and our imaginations are only advancing linearly, only because we’re human … and the policy and regulatory framework is only inching forward glacially.”

He added, “We’re moving toward this new world, and we’re not prepared.”

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