Gene Editing For A Long Life – A No Brainer?

Guest Post: Isabelle L Robertson
Paper: Student Essay- Designing Methuselah: an ethical argument against germline genetic modification to prolong human longevity

I am 16 years old. I am at the start of my life and looking towards my future, deciding on universities, career options and how I want my life to be. At the moment I can expect to perhaps live to 90 years of age. To me, this seems like a pretty good life. If I was offered more would I take it? I’m not sure; perhaps, if my health and independence can be guaranteed, then yes, I might.

Scientists have identified genes in mice that regulate lifespan. They have then edited these genes and have bred mice that have lived a full generation longer than their peers. These genes have their equivalents in the human genome too. Gene editing is becoming more refined by the day and it is predictable that it will one day be technically possible to edit the genome of human embryos to extend their lifespan. Again, extending from mice trials humans with these same genes altered could live to around 130 years old, the equivalent of a whole extra generation.

Gene editing technology brings with it many exciting opportunities such as the possibility of ridding some individuals of disease causing genetic variants. The possibilities extend beyond this though. It is not an unlikely prospect that in my lifetime I will be faced with the choice of deciding if I want my children to have any genetic alterations. These alterations might not just be limited to lifespan extension either; it is foreseeable that enhancements to traits as varied as intelligence, appearance and athletic capability may be potentially on offer. It’s clear that ethical discussion around each of these scenarios is needed. In my paper I have concentrated on whether genetically editing the human genome to extend lifespan is likely to enhance the quality of a person’s life.

Genetic editing is a new and a vast scientific frontier and brings with it hundreds of possible applications. Genetic editing for conditions such as lifespan extension must take place when the individual is an embryo, so it must be kept in mind that we are influencing the lives of people that do not yet exist. Therefore an extra level of certainty that the procedure will in fact benefit the individual is needed.

What do we need to consider then? What do people commonly agree on when deciding what makes for a good life? From conversations with friends a similar age to myself who are also looking towards and thinking about their futures, most say that the most important factor is to be happy and to maintain this happiness for as long as possible.

When looking at studies into what determines people’s happiness the main factor (aside from staying in good health) is being part of a cohort and experiencing life’s trials and tribulations together. Some commentators have described this as the ‘communitarian’ nature of humans. We are inherently social beings and value our relationships with others greatly. Studies have shown that the greatest contributing factor to unhappiness in the elderly apart from ill health is the loss of close relationships, especially family, that can result in increased levels of loneliness and isolation.

When thinking about this in the context of an extended lifespan, individuals who are genetically programmed to live longer will experience the loss of many of their close friends and family, including many in younger generations and risk rising levels of isolation and loneliness as a result. Therefore, a sizeable number of the individuals in question could experience higher levels of unhappiness than their contemporaries who will die before them.

While we can make up our minds about enhancing our own human experience by whatever means, using genome editing demands an extra level of certainty that the procedure will greatly benefit the person in question as we are deciding for a person that does not yet exist. To me the evidence suggests that there is a significant risk of harm in making the decision to engineers a person’s lifespan to be prolonged and the logical conclusion is that the procedure is unethical.

Our genomes have co-evolved alongside our behavior. When altering our genetic code, we need to call upon our understanding of what it is that makes us flourish and be content. Mismatching our genomes with our psychology would be unwise.