Socialist Worker

Who will benefit from gene breakthrough?

New gene editing technology offers humanity new ways to better treat disease, explains John Parrington

Issue No. 2393

Every now and again science takes a great leap forward. Such a leap seems to be happening right now in the biomedical sciences with the discovery of a revolutionary new way of editing the genes of any living organism, including humans. 

Among mammals this was only possible previously in the mouse, and then only through a very indirect route involving modification of embryonic stem cells. 

Engineering such mice with precise defects mimicking those found in human diseases has led to important insights about such diseases, and new drugs to treat them.

Unfortunately, it has proved impossible to isolate embryonic stem cells from other mammal species except, curiously, humans. 

Also, the technology used to modify the mouse version has been highly inefficient. 

In contrast, the new gene editing technology is both more efficient and can be applied to fertilised eggs of any species.

Last month it was reported that genetically engineered monkeys had been created using the new technology. 

These could be very important for studying the genetic basis of disorders of the brain such as Parkinson’s, schizophrenia and bipolar disorder.

Genetically modified pigs have also recently been created using gene editing. Such pigs will be very important for studying conditions like heart disease and diabetes because their bodies are much more like our own in responding to these diseases.

Gene editing may also be used to improve livestock for food production. 

Some argue that if the technology was used to introduce rare mutations that can occur naturally, this might not technically qualify as genetic modification.

Most controversially, gene editing will undoubtedly work in human fertilised eggs. This has led some to propose it as a way to eradicate genetic diseases. 

But others have voiced concerns that this could lead to tampering with the normal genetic code with a view to creating a new Shakespeare, Einstein or Usain Bolt.


So should we praise the new technology or fear it? 

We should welcome any new approach that can help to better understand disease and how to treat it, but this needs to be carefully weighed up against any suffering of animals created to model human disease.

What about genetically modified (GM) livestock? Opposition to GM crops has rightly focused on two issues. 

First the danger to the environment—for instance through the spread of herbicide resistance genes to weeds. 

And second on the extent to which these crops placed even more power into the hands of giant food companies. 

Such issues should inform our assessment of GM livestock too. But it would be a mistake to oppose all GM foodstuffs on principle.

And the more we learn about the human genome, the more simplistic seem claims of a simple link between genes and intelligence, sporting prowess, or musical genius. 

It therefore seems unlikely that any attempts to create “designer” babies would be straightforward.

But the biggest problem of all is that while capitalism continues to throw up exciting new scientific technologies our rulers never use them for the benefit of the majority.

The crisis in their system means increasing numbers of people are denied access to basic healthcare and fobbed off with substandard food. 

Revolutionary technologies like gene editing offer exciting new ways to manipulate nature, but to harness their power for ordinary people, we will also need a revolution in the social world.

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Article information

Tue 4 Mar 2014, 18:55 GMT
Issue No. 2393
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