It appears, by all accounts, to be a momentous scientific achievement – and possibly a turning point in human evolution. In a study released last week, scientists at Oregon Health and Science University confirmed they were able to modify genes in viable human embryos, proving the potential to permanently alter the makeup of a genetic line.
In this case, that meant replacing and repairing a mutated gene that causes a common and deadly heart disorder. But the possibilities heralded by gene-editing technology are endless, the scenarios as divided as they are bold. In some visions, it leads to a population of designer babies or “consumer eugenics.” Others imagine a utopia of scientific advancement where humans live free of disease, and devastating conditions are eradicated for the betterment of humanity. What direction the technology will take is the topic of much debate.
“The big thing which is making the scientific and ethics community get excited, and on the other hand a little bit hot and bothered, is it’s a mechanism to change genes for multiple generations,” says Dr. Alice Virani, a genetic counsellor and director of ethics at British Columbia’s Provincial Health Services Authority. “There are two ways to look at it, the more realistic ramifications and the sci-fi, if-this-was-out-of-control ramifications.”