Human Germ-line Modification Hiatus Proposed (too late?)

By on April 9th, 2015 in Blog Posts, Health & Medical

Nobel laureates David Baltimore and Paul Berg have recommended pausing  human germ-line modification in cells until experts can convene a conference to consider the implications of this activity.  (WSJ 4/9/2015 “Let’s Hit Pause Before Altering Humankind”)   They point out that this parallel’s a similar action in 1975 when the emergence of recombinant DNA technology triggered a conference on that topic.

This is a bit afield from IEEE’s domain of affairs, but quite relevant to the Society on Social Implications of Technology dialogs. Let me outline key concepts they put forward to help build a common vocabulary, and then focus on parallel’s in IEEE’s areas of work.

They point to the advent of a bio-tech (CRISPER/Cas9) that simplifies the modification of germ-line DNA alterations that are “quite precise with no undesired changes in the genome.” They point out that modifications can be within an individual without inheritability (somatic cell alteration.) They can be applied to germ-cells, affecting all future generations from that line either to eliminate a defect (therapeutic germ-line alteration.) Although they point out that similar benefits for the next generation may be attainable via embryo-selection methodology.  Finally there is the potential for “voluntary germ-line alteration”, to increase traits parents currently consider desirable. They point out that “we often do not know well enough the total range of consequences of a given gene alteration, potentially creating unexpected physiological alterations that would extend down through generations to come.” (A.k.a. the law of unintended consequences.)  Ergo they recommend a moratorium and conference to address the implications involved.

This is an excellent example parallel to IEEE’s Code of Ethics which includes “to improve the understanding of technology; its appropriate application, and potential consequences.” Actually, it goes one step further in taking action to manage potential consequences before they are fully realized.

If we look at the fields where IEEE’s technologists are engaged (with computing, robotics and bio-medical systems included, there are few areas we don’t touch), there are some interesting examples.  There is some discussion (although no suggested moratoriums) in areas like self-driving or remotely controllable cars, some of these fields are outgrowths of simple ‘improvements’, such as automatic breaking systems or parallel parking.  Others are unintended consequences of remote monitoring services.

Observation #1:

we (technologists, our employers, and indirectly stockholders and customers) may not be applying sufficient diligence in considering potential consequences.  In part we may not be providing the time and incentives for quality engineering of quality products. A quality product should not be subject to hacking that can affect public safety and health for example.

Observation #2:

The bio-genetics world is miles ahead of our technology in their limited understanding of what may result from their work.  For example, the concept of emerging artificial intelligence and it’s impact is getting coverage in science fiction, and even some awareness in research and industry, but we have very little insight on the potential consequences of passing over some nebulous lines in paths that lead towards intelligent and./or conscious systems.

What other areas do you see that might warrant some serious consideration before we proceed?

[April 24th 2015, Chinese researchers indicate they have completed a trial of germ-line modification, with some ‘off target’ effects.]

Also see: Human by design.