A most remarkable event occurred in the weeks preceding the June 2000 announcement of the completion of the first draft of the human genome DNA code: One of the leaders of the genome project publicly called for strict limits on what the scientific community should be permitted to do with the human genetic blueprint now in hand.
At a conference at MIT, Dr. Eric Lander, leader of the team that decoded the largest portion of the genome, called the conference to attention with this surprisingly stark suggestion:
Already, there are well-meaning discussions about improving the human DNA. I find this somewhat hubristic myself. [The human genome] has been 3.5 billion years in the making. We’ve been able to read it for the last, oh, I don’t know, year or so. And we suddenly think we could write the story better? It’s very amusing.
There is the prospect that by changing things we might put off aging, prevent cancer, improve memory. I find it a very difficult question. For my own part, I would put an absolute ban in place on human germline gene therapy. Not because I think for sure we should never cross that threshold. But because I think that is such a fateful threshold to cross that I’d like society to have to rebut that presumption someday, to have to repeal a ban when it thought it was time to ever try something like that.
The “germline gene therapy” being referred to involves altering the genes not just of an individual, but a procedure that embeds the genetic changes in a person’s reproductive cells–their sperm or eggs–so that the genetic alteration is heritable by all future generations.
Lander’s comments are remarkable on many levels. One is his frank acknowledgment of the enormity of the consequences of “crossing the germline.” Most noteworthy, though, is his willingness to recommend “an absolute ban” on a technology with the stipulation that any decision to overturn this ban be made by society rather than by scientific or policy experts. In doing so, this widely respected scientist violated the ruling dogma held by much of the life sciences enterprise: first, that no strictures, and certainly no statutory ones, should be placed on the emerging technologies; and second, that decisions should be left to each individual.
Many scientists agree with Lander’s sentiment regarding germline genetic interventions, but most base their position on the technical obstacles that prevent implementing it safely in the foreseeable future, and they would object to a socially determined legal ban.
As his own comments suggest, Lander’s appeal did not emerge from a vacuum. There are geneticists and others who adamantly advocate genetically re-engineering the human genetic germline–double-helix co-discoverer James Watson most prominent among them. From his vantage point, anything that could contribute to human health and betterment should be considered. “If we could make better human beings by knowing how to add genes, why shouldn’t we do it?” he challenged at a 1998 UCLA conference. I had the opportunity to check in with Watson at a conference this February sponsored by Time, called “The Future of Life.” By “adding genes” was he referring to genes from other species or novel genes created in the laboratory, I asked. “Anything!” he said.