Several years ago, the United Kingdom’s Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority approved gene editing in viable human embryos. Upon hearing this, questions arise and the imagination runs wild. A dystopian future where everyone is editing their kids’ genes to match the parents’ desired traits becomes an entertaining idea to ponder.
That is why, at first, the HFEA had only given the greenlight to one research project being conducted by biologist Kathy Niakan at the Francis Crick Institute in London. Only her lab was allowed to do the tweaking, using the CRISPR-Cas9 gene editing system to study donated embryos in the first week after fertilization.
In 2017, a lot more people than just Niakan are allowed to play around with the CRISPR system.
Dr. Josiah Zayner, Canadian biohacker and CEO of The Odin, a genetic engineering company, is one such person. Biohackers are not a new caste; they have just been around in different forms throughout the years. Biohackers are really explorers of genes, testing limits and trying new things as they study both plant and animal DNA, while experimenting with gene editing.
Taking biohacking as far as Zayner has seems like something out of a comic book. After all, fictitious villains are often created when scientists push too far. In a move many are calling crazy, Zayner has altered his own DNA, specifically in the muscle cells of his forearm. The citizen-scientist targeted the myostatin gene that prevents muscle growth in humans and animals. He deleted this gene and now is waiting for something, if anything, to happen. In nonhuman subjects, it often takes around 16 weeks for muscle growth, so now Zayner is tasked with enduring the wait.
One man doing what he wants to his body may not sound like a huge problem, but the results raise a lot of ethical concerns. With how rapidly norms have loosened since Niakan first started her CRISPR experiments, it is only a matter of time before the public, not just scientists, are carrying out these biohacks on themselves and even those around them.
Of course, gene editing raises other concerns that were especially prevalent when Niakan started, such as the so-called “designer baby dilemma,” which questions whether it is ethical to alter babies’ genes before birth. Still, countries like China have been using it to correct harmful genes like one that caused certain blood disorders. Zayner is not the one people should be worried about, however.
Scientists should be concerned about the people whose research projects are largely left unregulated by the government, giving them more freedom to pursue some less than smart or not so noble experiments. These experiments come with the risk of cancer and other health problems, even mutations.
Whether Zayner is successful or not, there needs to be some strict international laws set up to regulate the genetic engineering of humans as gene modification gets increasingly more accessible. Humans should be able to advance their knowledge without conducting any unethical experiments. A science fiction nightmare must not become the new reality.