Preventing the transmission of inherited genetic diseases, and increasing food production rates in farmed animals are two potential applications of genome editing technologies that require urgent ethical scrutiny, according to a new report by the Nuffield Council on Bioethics.
The Council, which includes academics from King’s, has today published the first findings of its review looking at the potential impact of recent advances in genome editing such as the CRISPR-Cas9 system across many areas of biological research. The report found evidence that, given its technical advantages and rates of uptake, genome editing is already having an almost unprecedented impact in research. The Council considered the possible effects of these advances in fields such as health care, food production, industry and public health.
Professor Karen Yeung, Director of the Centre for Technology, Law & Society at King’s and a member of the Nuffield Council on Bioethics Working Group, who conducted the review said: ‘We examined the way in which these technologies are being taken up in the research community and what we found is that, because of a number of advantages which they offer in relation to existing techniques for manipulating DNA, they are having an unprecedented transformative effect on the biological sciences and for that reason they have the potential to change our expectations and ambitions about human control over the biological world.
‘One of the reasons why we are undertaking this review is to encourage public deliberation. We think that the potential applications for human health are very important, but also in relation to food production where the technology is really almost ready to go and that is why we are trying to think carefully about the ethical dimensions in order to try and identify the paths of development that we think are the most ethically appropriate.’
The Council will now begin work on two further inquiries addressing the ethical and practical questions raised by possible uses of genome editing in different fields. The first of these will focus on the potential use of genome editing in human reproduction to avoid the transmission of heritable genetic conditions, and the second on livestock to improve systems of animal husbandry and food production.
Dr Andy Greenfield, Chair of the Nuffield Council on Bioethics Working Group who conducted the review, said:‘Genome editing is already showing a potential to transform not only how biological research is carried out, but more importantly our expectations and ambitions for addressing challenges such as disease prevention and food security. Although most uses so far have been in research, the potential applications seem to be almost unlimited, given that the techniques are applicable to all organisms, from bacteria to plants, animals, and human beings.’
Avoiding genetic disease
Human reproductive applications are probably the most talked about potential application of genome editing technologies and raise some of the most complex ethical concerns. Genome editing could one day offer an alternative approach to preventing the inheritance of diseases such as cystic fibrosis.
Concerns have been stirred by reports of research in China to correct disease-causing genetic mutations in non-viable embryos in 2015 and the granting, by the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA), of a licence to allow genome editing of embryos in the UK February 2016.
Professor Yeung is Chair of the newly established Nuffield Council on Bioethics Working Party on human reproductive applications and said: ‘Genome editing is a potentially powerful set of techniques that holds many future possibilities, including that of altering certain genetic features at the embryonic stage that are known to lead to serious and life-limiting disease. In the UK and in many other countries, a long path to legislative change would have to be followed before this could become a treatment option. But it is only right that we acknowledge where this new science may lead and explore the possible paths ahead to ensure the one on which we set out today is the right one. We will be very interested to hear people’s views on this aspect of genome editing technologies in our new inquiry.’
Many people have concerns about the possible use of genome editing in humans, for example, about the risks of unintended effects due to off target DNA alterations, and the implications of making irreversible changes that will be passed on to future generations. Another key concern is the possible orientation of research towards human enhancement, going beyond disease prevention into the engineering of ‘desirable’ genetic characteristics. As with other technologies and innovations, the potential benefits and harms of genome editing might not be distributed equitably, and some people are worried that negative effects could cause discrimination, injustice or disadvantage to certain individuals or groups.
Learn more: Ethical challenges of genome editing
A 3D printed image of the Voight-Kampff machine with camera and ear-piece
An emotion detector which, potentially, can tell whether a person really finds you attractive on a first date has been created by researchers at Lancaster University.
The inspiration for the device came from a gadget featured in the 1982 sci-fi fantasy film, Blade Runner, starring Harrison Ford and directed by Ridley Scott.
Replicating the Voight-Kampff machine, a fictional interrogation tool, the Lancaster team have created a device that mimics this emotion-detector.
But the plausibly real device is, at this stage, still pure fiction and, while creating it has sparked imaginative design skills and a little fun, it has been built to convey a serious message.
The design team, which includes the Centre for Spatial Analysis (CASA) at UCL, are keen to get people to think about the ethical implications of a world in which we use computers to monitor or even manipulate our emotions.
The polygraph-like Voight-Kampff machine was used by the Blade Runners police force to determine if an individual was a biorobotic android, detected by means of a test in which emotional responses were provoked.
It measured body functions such as blush response, respiration, heart rate and eye movement in response to questions dealing with empathy.
Designers at Lancaster are now researching technologies for their own Voight-Kampff machine including an ear-piece which measures skin and heart rate responses and a pupil-dilation measure.
The team’s fictional speculative device is set against an online dating backdrop and is designed, in theory, to determine if it’s love and sincerity at first sight or sound.
The machine takes on a whole new 21st century appearance – neat, bright and compact – and simply clips onto the bottom of a smartphone or tablet.
The research team, headed by Lancaster University’s design fiction expert Professor Paul Coulton, are set to present a paper on 11 May in San Jose at CHI, the world’s premier conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems, the place to see, discuss and learn about the future of how people interact with technology.
“This machine looks and feels very real and has even prompted a film-making company in the States to request filming us manufacturing the device,” said Professor Coulton. “But this is actually a tool for creating some pretty serious discussions.”
Design fiction is, in broad terms, speculative design which heralds what might come about in the future world of human computer interaction, explains Professor Coulton.
“The factor that differentiates and distinguishes design fiction from other approaches is its novel use of ‘world building’ and, in this paper, we consider whether there is value in creating fictional research worlds through which we might consider future interactions.”
“As an example, we built this world in which rules for detecting empathy will become a major component of future communications. We take inspiration from the sci-fi film ‘Blade Runner’to consider what a plausible world, in which it is useful to build a Voight-Kampff machine, might be like.
“People are working towards this kind of thing,” he added. “What we are doing is questioning whether it has a place in our society – what kind of uses they have and what the world would actually be like with them. We want people to think about the ethical implications of what we do. Technically a lot of this is possible but is it actually what we want?”
Imagine you are in charge of the switch on a trolley track.
The express is due any minute; but as you glance down the line you see a school bus, filled with children, stalled at the level crossing. No problem; that’s why you have this switch. But on the alternate track there’s more trouble: Your child, who has come to work with you, has fallen down on the rails and can’t get up. That switch can save your child or a bus-full of others, but not both. What do you do?
This ethical puzzler is commonly known as the Trolley Problem. It’s a standard topic in philosophy and ethics classes, because your answer says a lot about how you view the world. But in a very 21st century take, several writers (here and here, for example) have adapted the scenario to a modern obsession: autonomous vehicles. Google’s self-driving cars have already driven 1.7 million miles on American roads, and have never been the cause of an accident during that time, the company says. Volvo says it will have a self-driving model on Swedish highways by 2017. Elon Musk says the technology is so close that he can have current-model Teslas ready to take the wheel on “major roads” by this summer.
Who watches the watchers?
The technology may have arrived, but are we ready?