Is the “serious” factor in germline modification really relevant? A response to Kleiderman, Ravitsky and Knoppers

By Iñigo de Miguel Beriain

Is the “serious” factor in germline modification relevant? This seems a relevant question in the germline gene editing debate. Of course, at first glance, one tends to choose an affirmative answer immediately. It seems common sense to think that sophisticated technology should be used only when we are faced with significant pathologies. This is precisely the hypothesis that underlies most of the literature on this subject. This includes, of course, Kleiderman, Ravitsky, and Knoppers’ paper [free to read here – Eds.], which inspired me to reflect on this subject.

Once I examined the issues at stake, I concluded that this hypothesis is wrong. In fact, my article argues that if there comes a time when the use of genetic editing techniques involves minimal risk, we would have to use them for a wide range of pathologies. Moreover, this range would not necessarily include some of the most serious ones. There are several reasons why I think this is true:

  1. In the case of some severe pathologies, such as monogenic diseases, we could continue to use preimplantation genetic diagnosis to prevent human beings from being born with them. This would eliminate the need for genetic editing.
  2. On the other hand, gene editing technologies could be used to modify genes in the case of polygenic diseases that may not be very serious, but that hinder our lives.
  3. Finally, editing could be used to modify our genes in a way that decreases the likelihood of developing certain pathologies. Think, for example, of the possibility of altering the BRCAs genes.

Therefore, I conclude in my paper that the “serious” factor should not play an essential role in gene editing, provided that the risks involved in these technologies are acceptable. Furthermore, I argue that if the level of risk were high, it would not be well understood why we would have to edit human embryos instead of continuing to use preimplantation genetic diagnosis to discard embryos suffering severe pathologies. Therefore, my conclusion is that, whatever the level of risk, the “serious factor” should not play an essential role in the discussion on the applicability of genetic editing techniques.

 

Paper title: Is the “serious” factor in germline modification really relevant? A response to Kleiderman, Ravitsky and Knoppers

Author: Iñigo de Miguel Beriain

Affiliations:

University of the Basque Country. Leioa Bizkaia. Spain

IKERBASQUE. Basque Foundation for Science. Bilbao. Spain

Competing interests: None declared

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