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Genetic Disparity: How Close Are We to the Sci-Fi Future of GATTACA?

Gene Editing in the 21st Century: Progress and Ethics Explored

By Olivia L. DobbsPublished 3 months ago 7 min read
Genetic Disparity: How Close Are We to the Sci-Fi Future of GATTACA?
Photo by Sangharsh Lohakare on Unsplash

“Designer babies could be just two years away”, wrote CNN journalist Jack Guy in 2019. His article highlighted what was, at the time, the hottest news in the world of bioethics, that gene editing was becoming safe enough for use on human embryos.

But the potential application on human subjects sparked controversy. Many were concerned about these genetically-modified babies, specifically those whose genes were edited for vanity instead of therapy and disease prevention. There was talk that such tech would bring about some sort of dystopian, GATTACA-esque future. Others pointed out how uncomfortably close the notion of gene editing was to Eugenics. Others still doubted the use of any sort of genetic modification, muddying the waters with conspiracies of the dangers of other GMOs.

Four years later, almost two years after the predicted date that editing the genes of your offspring would be an option on the market, we’re still decidedly lacking any sort of super-children with superior intellectual or physical abilities.

But now, how much closer have we gotten to gene-editing away genetic risks in our future children? A GATTACA-esque future is closer than you may think.

Gene Editing is Already Happening

We already have the know-how and the technology to produce genetically modified babies. Seriously, we have an understanding of modifying basic physical traits, it’s just too expensive to do anything besides what is absolutely necessary.

Right now, there are some minor forms of gene editing available on the market. For the low price of $3000-$12000, you can select the sex of your child in the womb. Finding such a service can be difficult, however, as clinics have varying policies on when such a treatment may actually be used.

Generally, the procedure is only available for medical reasons like preventing a genetic disease that’s more likely to be expressed in one sex over the other. Also, it requires the use of IVF, which has about a 50% success rate. Clinics that provide IVF as an option often suggest that parents should expect to attempt the procedure multiple times in order to successfully keep a pregnancy. Gene editing for sex selection alone could end up costing a cool $50,000 in some cases.

In addition, there is a wide variety of tests available on the market that parents can use to understand their own genetics or the genetics of their children. These tests are certainly more affordable than editing options (ranging from $100-$2000 depending on complexity), but take no action in preventative care or genetic treatment.

For now, genetic counseling is the closest most parents can get to designing their future babies. Before conception, parents have the ability to work with a scientist to determine the likelihood that reproduction would result in a genetic disorder, and can even make decisions about whether they should move forward with having children.

Despite the exorbitant costs of gene editing, the first truly gene-edited babies already exist. And, so far, they’re doing well without any noticed complications. The issue is, the gene editing experiment that produced them was done outside the scope of both the law and bioethics. The researcher responsible for the production of these three designer infants, He Jiankui, was sentenced to three years in prison for his unethical gene editing. Due to the nature of controversy around the experimentation, we don’t know if his gene editing (which focused on making the infants immune to HIV) successfully immunized the three infants.

What’s the Deal with the Slowdown?

Controversy is certainly a reason that the research has slowed down. Any sort of experiment that deals with human subjects undergoes an incredible amount of precautions and scrutiny. When the experiments involve children, infants, or fetuses, this increases tenfold. When He Jiankui bypassed this scrutiny, it created an emotionally charged dialogue around the subject, sparking outcry by people that felt Jiankui had gone too far.

But controversy was certainly not the only phenomena to slow down the rate of progress. Genetic research unsurprisingly saw a shift in focus due to the effects of Covid-19. As the disease appeared, funding shifted towards understanding COVID’s genome, and futurology-focused studies were shifted to the back burner. But now, genetic research on designer genes is finally beginning to recover.

The inherent risk involved in modifying genes also restricts the speed at which researchers can progress. According to Dr. John Leonard of Intellia Therapeutics, ”CRISPR can still have off-target effects – hitting genes that weren't intended – but the risk is much smaller than with other editing tools. That also explains why the field of gene editing is moving slowly and deliberately. Sloppy work could lead to cancers or other problems.“

But right now, the use of gene editing tools like CRISPR is exceedingly expensive, which causes progress to be much slower. Even gene therapy options, which utilize CRISPR to deliver corrective genes to patients, can cost millions of dollars. Minor lab experiments with CRISPR can cost tens of thousands of dollars to run, which just isn’t feasible in many research labs. Once we manage to lower this cost, however, we’ll likely see a ramp-up in genetic discoveries and treatments.

Updated Prediction for When Designer Genes Will be Available

Designer genes are already possible, we’re able to edit the genes of embryos to limit the likelihood of diseases, select sex, and modify some physical appearances. It’s still primitive, but it’s possible. The problem is no longer a science or technological issue, it’s more an issue of cost, public perception, and ethics.

Considering that the very first scientist who edited the genomes of fetuses faced such a harsh backlash for his CRISPR experiments, it’s likely that ethics and culture will be the greatest hindrance of innovation in this field. Even among scientific circles, the idea of modifying life in this way feels like too great a risk to attempt.

And unfortunately, as is par for the course with any professional scientist, most genetic researchers are exceedingly hesitant on predicting a certain date for when we’ll see real, GATTACA-esque edits on fetuses. There’s just too many variables at play, and too much ethics and emotions involved about the subject in our global society. But, more and more individuals are warming up to the idea of using gene editing to improve their offspring. Though the majority still distrust the technology, a growing number of people in the United States are interested in using the tech when they plan their families. The idea of avoiding genetic diseases and providing their child with a competitive advantage in school and careers is simply too good to ignore.

It’s important to note here that we’re on the brink of practical use of a new tool that has the potential to radically increase the rate at which we can edit genetics: artificial intelligence. AI tools have the potential to transform the medical field specifically; some experts believe that this field, and adjacent sciences like genetics, will experience a more drastic change because of AI than all other fields.

Potential Effects of Gene Editing

Many countries have already established regulations to prevent the use of gene editing for non-medical purposes, including the creation of designer babies. However, as technology advances, it will be important for policymakers, scientists, and society as a whole to continue to monitor and regulate the use of gene editing to ensure that it is used ethically and responsibly.

The countries that remain pro-editing may generate money off of medical tourism for parents with the economic abilities to do so. The countries that choose to be early adopters of genetic engineering will likely see a temporary increase in revenue.

Unfortunately, medical tourism has a potential for furthering the gap of economic disparity. That, paired with anticipated high costs will likely make it so only the wealthy will originally have access to this new technology. This new application of wealth could have drastic effects on culture as a whole, giving the top percentages of our society a further competitive advantage against those who cannot afford to improve their children’s genetics. Under our current economic system, the dystopian aspect of GATTACA seems almost imminent.

We’re a far way away from the gene editing technology of GATTACA but, the economic disparity and inequalities are within reach. If we don’t modify our societies to regulate away inequities, gene editing will become an additional advantage for the elite, instead of a life-saving tool for all.

Unless you happen to be a billionaire, it’s not quite practical yet to start budgeting for your own designer children. A reasonably priced market solution will likely not be available any time soon. The cost of such a procedure is just far too expensive. We are, however, close enough to need to start considering the ramifications the widespread use this technology may have on our societies.

If we proceed with gene editing without regulation, or without an understanding of the possible risks we could face, there is much cause for ethical concern. Now, at this time in history where we stand right beside gene editing, we have the greatest opportunity to identify how far away our psyches and economic systems are from it. Let’s use this time wisely, shall we?

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About the Creator

Olivia L. Dobbs

Science Enthusiast, Naturalist, Dreamer.

Check out my science! -> bit.ly/DobbsEtAl

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