Friday, April 24, 2015

Dangerous Editing Is Inevitable

Editing, to most of us, is a simple practice of plucking out the inconsistent verb tense, the unsuitable adjective or reframing the sentence completely. All of these are acceptable or actions to be discussed, fought over and, ultimately, which come to some acceptable resolution. That is if you're wandering in the realm of books and writing efforts of either fledglings or accomplished titans. But not all editing is so benign.

Recent warnings about genetic editing by scientists eager to be the first in their field to produce changes in human embryos have fallen on deaf ears. While enough of the researchers realize the danger, the ethics and the frightful potential to the human race or the child born of these manipulations, some throw caution to the wind. It is this latter group that has taken genetic editing into their own hands and where the most concern is being expressed.

Pushing the boundaries of science has always been a goal of anyone working in the field. So much is unknown and every discovery gives rise to yet one or even 10 more incredibly challenging and interesting questions. The questions begin a new race even as they are presented in scientific journals. A few voices caution regarding hasty actions, but the race is on despite any ethical challenges. Who wants to be the first to actually deliver Plato's three types of humans, the gold, the silver and the bronze?

The bronze, of course, would be the obedient populace. The gold would lead (the one percenters) and the silver would comprise the legions who would fight to protect the gold against the bronze. Something out of H.G. Wells or from the fertile mind of Mary Shelley? Perhaps and perhaps not far fetched.

Some wish to replicate the result or push the envelope with a new technique, others to quash the brashness of the researchers who proposed the advances in the first place. Perhaps in everyone's mind the elusive Nobel shines as a beacon to which they are drawn. Wouldn't their parents be glowing with pride, too? Not so fast.

Watson and Crick took the initial findings of Rosalind Franklin and, in the wake of her premature death, went on to be known as the discoverers of the Double Helix, the very core of our DNA. Death denied Franklin her place in the equivalent of the Mount Olympus of science. But her contribution, nevertheless, cannot be denied, albeit it is given short shrift in articles lauding the two men in their discovery.

A simple breakthrough in a tobacco virus was all it took and how could anyone know what it would reveal? It opened up truly incredible possibilities for future gains against diseases of every stripe. The door was opened, too, to a world of unnaturally created creatures to do all manner of work or to inhabit a world of intellectual slavery at the service of their masters. Not so preposterous when you consider the full range of genetic possibilities here. We're not talking about simple disease thwarting but the creation, possibly, of a range of mutants.

The Chinese have been racing to establish themselves in the area of genetic manipulation and one has to wonder at what price. There are no obstacles in their path as their government sanctions their efforts and no letters to the editors of scientific journals will slow their pace, either. The scientists live in a world that is only bent on discovery at all cost. Taking human embryos and exploiting a new gene potential resulted in the "failure" of 85 of them to either die or morph into mosaics which were unacceptable.

Ethicists will have to ponder this challenge long and hard and the rest of us will be left wondering what exactly will be the genetic change that results in something that will live. Will it advance science's quest against disease or be used for some more nefarious plan? We can only hope reason checkmates ego or a national quest in some area of dominance.

Should there be a new UN-type governing body to which scientists all over the world subscribe? Is the world entitled to know it is safe from science gone rogue?

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