• Question: When medical advancements in DNA manipulation cure all known diseases and conditions, is there a risk that if technology is used to advance natural human limitations, such as single-spectrum sight, those advancements would create huge societal concerns, such as the introduction of, essentially, super-humans, and should genetic research be limited to prevent such advancements, even if it would hinder humanity biologically as a whole?

    Asked by oliverp on 20 Jun 2019.
    • Photo: Marianne King

      Marianne King answered on 20 Jun 2019:

      I think this is definitely one of those things where we’d have to be very careful. Just because we can do something it doesn’t mean we always should. 🙂 Using gene therapy to help cure genetic diseases would be a great therapeutic breakthrough, but we’d have to be careful about what this technology could also be used for. If we did indeed use genetics to create super-humans then this could possibly further increase the divide between people who have the money to do these things and those who don’t. We have enough of a societal divide as it is, so I’d rather not try and make this worse! Progress is a tricky thing sometimes. 🙂

    • Photo: Matthew Bareford

      Matthew Bareford answered on 20 Jun 2019:

      That is a hugely impactful and relevant question.

      I think that when you look at the aims of science and medicine as a whole, these advancements would be extremely important and natural to progress to using not just DNA manipulation but also technology.

      In terms of personal usage and adaptation, this is where the idea of ‘super-humans’ becomes an issue. the use of technological advancements would have the same effect as genetic ones, in creating ‘super-humans’. whilst these two areas are linked in the medicine and health sense, there is a much more larger market in terms of technology in other areas, but which may still affect the human body e.g technological implants and limb replacements etc.

      I think moving forward, as these things become more of a reality there will need to be some kind of controls and regulations in place, otherwise without this then these will be accessible to select groups of people in the first instance due to cost, and thus create further divides in society. Also it will then increase a demand for a ‘black market’ in it all which would be very dangerous.

    • Photo: Thiloka Ratnaike

      Thiloka Ratnaike answered on 20 Jun 2019:

      Wow, what a relevant question given current advances in genomics!
      Just want to put down the caveat that although there are huge advances, they are still not anywhere near close to any sort of cure for a lot of genetic conditions. Unfortunately gene therapy is still a developing treatment option even though people were hopeful of cures for conditions such as cystic fibrosis given the huge amount we know about this fairly common genetic condition. So the first part of the answer is about saying I don’t think we will get to a stage where there is a cure for all known diseases becauses diseases themselves are continuing to evolve with the human population.
      In terms of a risk with creating genetically modified human beings- I think there is a real risk of that however small the gene that is being edited is in terms of outward implications. This is an area that is under a lot of scrutiny in terms of the ethics board that this sort of research would have to go through. Unfortunately there are areas of the world which have the resources to do this research which don’t have the type of stringent ethical hurdles we have here in the UK. So, potentially genetic editing could happen in the embryo for purely cosmetic purposes rather than disease-overcoming purposes, and that is something that terrifies me because it could snowball!

    • Photo: Shobhana Nagraj

      Shobhana Nagraj answered on 20 Jun 2019:

      Brilliant question! This is a really topical area at the moment and there are real tensions between scientists who are excited by new breakthroughs in genomics, machine learning and artificial intelligence, and the ethics of conducting research in these areas. The field of research ethics in technology, and genomics is developing and I think as the field gets bigger, we will have strong ethics committees in place to ensure that research is done in a way that wouldn’t lead to hindering humanity in research. This field of research is called Bioethics and there is a committee at Genomics England overseeing genomic research: https://www.genomicsengland.co.uk/about-genomics-england/the-board/ethics-advisory-committee/.

    • Photo: Kaitlin Wade

      Kaitlin Wade answered on 20 Jun 2019:

      That’s a fascinating question and completely involves the types of controversy and ethical considerations we have at the moment. We have to be really careful about what we decide to ‘alter’ genetically. You’re right that, if we don’t have a firm grip and rules about what we do and don’t do, it could get out of hand.

    • Photo: Nina Rzechorzek

      Nina Rzechorzek answered on 20 Jun 2019:

      Very insightful question, but I don’t believe that any current medical advancements in DNA manipulation will cure all known diseases and conditions. Pathogens are evolving all the time, and in order for us to be able to prevent any disease, we would need to engineer a ‘smart’ or ‘AI’ immune system that could not only respond to previously encountered pathogens (as it does now), but at the same time generate defences against the next strain they might evolve into (through predictive algorithms). Over millennia there have been ‘booms’ and ‘busts’ in many species as large swathes of their populations have been wiped out by epidemics – I’m not an advocate of epidemics, but they do serve as a kind of population control. The bottom line is that if we as species reach a ‘super’ point where we can live forever through curing every ailment we will very rapidly outgrow our planet; in some ways we already have. The other worry, is that by developing technology that could potentially lead to AI forms of nucleic acid, we run the risk of unleashing some kind of ‘super virus’ that could kill us all. I think the evolutionary arms race between us and pathogens will always be there – and some of the technological advances we make could accidentally favour the pathogens at our own expense. So I agree that your concerns are real ones for the future, and should be debated each time there is a ‘game-changer’ in the field of genetics.