Will we ever resolve the moral dilemmas of editing the human genome?
Wed 21st December 2016
Earlier this month, the University of Southampton Science Park hosted its annual Christmas Lecture: an intimate talk-and-networking event aimed at bringing the academic and business worlds together.
This year we invited Professor Keith Fox, Associate Director of the Faraday Institute for Science and Religion, to bring us into the fascinating moral maze of genetic testing.
Beginning his lecture, Professor Fox walked the audience through a brief history of the human genome, hinting at the ethical minefield we’re faced with in an age where altering it is possible.
“What makes me, me?” is a typical opening question in debate around altering the genome, but it’s a morally and philosophically loaded one.
Some, Professor Fox stated, would argue that our DNA is what makes us who we are - but the debate always changes shape when discussing those who are mentally impaired.
It’s all very well and good for physically able, mentally sound people to discuss interfering with nature’s handywork. But maybe our scientific powers would be rightfully used if they improved a person’s quality of life.
If a person with HIV, for example, could be stripped of the defective cells, shouldn’t we use modern gene-editing therapy - such as CRISPR - to erase it? HIV is another loaded topic - should blame and consequence feature in the genome debate?
Professor Fox threw a multitude of well-practised, morally pressing genome questions around ethics of genetic testing yet, almost without exception, the answer comes back to its inevitable centrepoint: is changing the course of nature progressive or regressive? Is it appropriate to tinker with the great reality, or does the relief it may bring to some justify the means?
Crucially, during a day featuring many weighty hypotheticals, the lecture ended with Professor Fox throwing down his own personal view on the issue: a leader in the field offering a concrete opinion. “We need to qualify what genetic diseases we should and shouldn’t be able to treat,” he said. “Cystic Fibrosis or Huntington’s disease: their outcomes are clear, and in those circumstances, I think there is a good case for being able to modify the genome; as a form of medical intervention at a very early stage.”
Understandably, contentious issues like genome altering throw up more questions than answers but it was hugely interesting to hear an expert talk through a debate that still rumbles on in policy units, health services and legal centres up and down the country - and across the world.
The lecture was well-received by an engaged audience, which itself kept the debate moving long after Professor Fox finished speaking. It marked another successful Christmas Lecture at University of Southampton Science Park, with Peter Birkett, CEO, commenting, “It was a pleasure to welcome Professor Keith Fox to the Science Park to deliver our 2016 Christmas Lecture. As an expert in the field of human genomics, he not only guided us through the history of DNA but also helped us understand the societal dilemmas associated with using innovative gene-editing therapy to alter the human genome. The lecture and debate which followed were highly engaging and made a fitting climax to the Science Park’s 2016 ENGAGE programme.”
Watch the full lecture here: http://bit.ly/2hafiSE