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4/24/2015
12:30 PM
David Wagner
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Embryo DNA Experiments Hold Lessons For Tech

Western scientists are up in arms about a new experiment to alter the DNA of an embryo. The real issue isn't ethics, however. It is whether it is the smart path to be taking in the first place.

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Researchers in China had the audacity (or immorality?) to try to alter the DNA of a human embryo in an attempt to cure it of a disease. The paper came out in the journal Protein and Cell today, and many Western scientists have gone literally bonkers.

Western scientists have called it immoral, irresponsible, and dangerous -- and those are the kind words. Before we all get too crazy, I'd like to inject a little IT logic into this debate and think about it the way we would any new technology.

For a minute let's put aside the moral argument and talk about what it is these scientists actually did.

The researchers at the Sun Yat-sen University took 86 nonviable human embryos and tried to alter their DNA through a process called CRISPR/Cas9. Specifically, they wanted to remove a gene which causes a sometimes fatal blood disorder without disturbing any other genes. Only 71 embryos survived the process at all. Only 28 removed the gene in question. And in all 28 where it was removed, other genes were unintentionally altered.

Let's be clear. This is not like last week's SpaceX near miss. This was an epic failure on the way to trying to do something which is likely still decades or centuries away. Even had it been a rip-roaring success, none of these embryos would have been people.

(Image: Duncan Hull via Flickr)

(Image: Duncan Hull via Flickr)

The general complaint is that this kind of thing has been off-limits in Western science because some people -- mostly Westerners -- find it unethical. We don't want to mess with our species. We don't know what unplanned harm we will do. It has societal and religious implications that clearly require some debate. Fine. But I'd like to point out a few things:

Just because Western scientists have qualms about this doesn't mean Chinese scientists have to. They are not injuring anyone. They are not experimenting with potential people -- none of these embryos are viable. They had no intentions of allowing these embryos to grow to be people. Let's not get crazy when we say they are messing with our species just yet.

Learning to do something, and then doing it for fun and profit, is a different thing. US scientists know how to destroy the Earth in hundreds of ways, but they don't. Studying small pox doesn't mean you plan on unleashing it.

Why it is that Western scientists thinks they have a monopoly on what is ethical?

It smacks of racism, or at least a kind of patronizing intolerance of research coming from a new competitor. The not-so-subtle implication is that Western scientists don't trust Chinese scientists to take the precautions they do. They assume Chinese scientists don't mind messing with the species. It seems unfair at best.

Altering the DNA of embryos might be unethical. It might not be. I think a debate is a great idea. I suspect that debate would quickly degenerate into a religious war, which I'd rather not invite on the pages of InformationWeek. Instead I'd like to inject a little of what we do into this debate, and look at it the way we look at any startup.

Is this the best way to do this?

The goal of the Chinese researchers is clearly laudable. They want to cure a disease before it even starts. If they could cure beta thalassemia, the blood disease they were experimenting with, they could save thousands of people from needing constant blood transfusions, and from growth problems, anemia, and possibly death.

When we look at, for example, Amazon drone delivery, we ask ourselves the same question: Is this the best way to do this? Clearly drone delivery is cool. But is it the optimal way to move packages, or just the coolest way to move packages? The jury is still out, but experts think the drone may not be the best choice because of the expense and other issues. If you were investing in drones or other shipping methods, you might not pick drones.

[Want more on drone delivery? Read Drone Study Shows Consumers Are Ready.]

So, is treating a disease at the embryo the best way to do this? I'm no geneticist, but I'm making an educated guess that this is going to take decades to pull off, decades longer to prove medically successful, and decades more to make economically viable. Think about it. We just took our first steps down this road, and it failed. When was the last time we've seen this kind of basic change to the way we think of medicine go any faster? If this was the equivalent of the moon landing, these researchers are the Wright Brothers.

When you bet on a new technology, you don't just bet on whether it will work, but whether someone else can do the same thing faster and better. With any given disease, which is more likely to happen -- we learn to eradicate it at the embryo stage or we develop a drug to at least treat the symptoms? Granted, there are thousands of diseases we are nowhere near controlling, many of them genetic. And it is possible that running around developing an individual pill for each one will be slower than a single gene-editing trick.

But there's also the slightly more responsible path of genetic research around editing adult genes. Last year, scientists edited a specific gene in lab mice to successfully cure a liver disease. They believe they can begin human trials in a few years. The technique they used, called Crispr, can already target a single genetic mutation without causing unwanted changes to other genes, unlike what happened in the Chinese attempt.

So look at it this way. Forget the ethics. Down that road, there be dragons. Which horse do you back if you are investing in a startup? Drug therapies or altering genes? You might pick gene altering. But would you pick a method that has already shown success and is nearly ready for clinical trial, or would you pick the one fraught with ethical fears that hasn't worked so far, and might take decades for people to learn to do?

My advice to scientists and people up in arms about this: Save your time on the moral outrage. Back the horse that is going to win. Research dollars go to the most viable technology. Eventually, we'll learn to alter the genes of embryos, slowly, and with deliberate care. In the meantime, my money for the bulk of the research is going to be on a much less controversial and more advanced existing technology. If this really is a wrong move, it is the economics of technology that will show that it is, not an ethics class.

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David has been writing on business and technology for over 10 years and was most recently Managing Editor at Enterpriseefficiency.com. Before that he was an Assistant Editor at MIT Sloan Management Review, where he covered a wide range of business topics including IT, ... View Full Bio
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kstaron
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kstaron,
User Rank: Ninja
4/29/2015 | 3:57:06 PM
ethics is as ethics does
Disease prevention is always a laudable goal. After all when disease is prevented there are more healthy people to make sure everyone on the planet has a place to live and food to eat. The only reason i can see that scientists might be upset oer embryonic experiments is that once you start changing some genes you learn how to change others. And that embryo doesn't get a say if genetic changes lead to parents who want a child of a different gender, sexual orientation, of even better at sports or math, or say, more obediant. An adult that gets genetic therapy consents to only what they want changed. Even though these embryos were not viable, there are ethical questions in genetic therapy in that context, of what we should be allowed to change.
asksqn
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asksqn,
User Rank: Ninja
4/27/2015 | 6:36:24 PM
It's a quality of life issue
I don't think ethics should be trumped by dollar signs under the guise of disease preemption.  It is irresponsible and unconscionable for science to extend life without ensuring that every human being who is on this planet has a place to live and enough to eat.  
nasimson
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nasimson,
User Rank: Ninja
4/26/2015 | 8:34:44 PM
Whats the vatican response?
What a thought provoking piece!

It seems that for a variety of reasons Chinese will take a lead here. And wealthy European couples will go to China for smarter and healthier kids.
zerox203
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zerox203,
User Rank: Ninja
4/26/2015 | 5:16:27 PM
Re: Embryo DNA Experiments Hold Lessons For Tech
I couldn't agree more, Dave. Maybe it's no surprise at this point that US (and other) media outlets will be filled with exaggerated outrage over any and every bit of news, but when it comes to something science-oriented, I feel compelled to stand up on behalf of reason, especially when reputable science sources are amongst those doing the naysaying. Now, I'm not saying there's no moral debate here. As Mr. DavidK points out, we're all sci-fi fans, and there's no shortage of stories of gene modification gone wrong there. Apparently, there's an international "policy agreement"  specifically forbidding this kind of research, and the chinese researchers knowingly broke it. So, while you're right that our western morals have no jurisdiction over them, we're back to the other side of the coin. There is an international community to answer to when it comes to science, and it moves at a certain pace by design.

That's a far cry from going against progress, though. Terry makes a great point. The line of at what point we're mucking with 'nature's intentions' is fairly arbitrary, and to that end, religion should have no place in restricting the rights of others. History ought to have proven that enough times by now. I don't blame people for being heated - this is a heavy issue. Projecting ignorance, though, is only going to stifle us from making the important decisions when it's time to. It sounds like  the methods used by MIT are not even that different from the ones used by the chinese researchers - Crispr/Cas9 appears to be a subtype of crispr ("Cas" just means "crispr associated"). The fact that many of the people up in arms wouldn't even be bothered to read that far says a lot. Many STEM figureheads talk about how important a STEM-aware populace is for future generations. I agree with that 100%.
Angelfuego
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Angelfuego,
User Rank: Ninja
4/25/2015 | 2:17:42 PM
Re: Good Stuff
It is an interesting concept. I think it would be great if there was a way to prevent people from developing a blood disease, especially those at high risk. It would prevent such people from struggling to live, running to many appointments, undergoing blood transfusions, and being ill. It gives people a chance to grow up with not such a risk. I do see how this can be a controversial experiment but it's worth putting on the table to discuss.
DavidK543
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DavidK543,
User Rank: Strategist
4/24/2015 | 6:47:35 PM
Re: Good Stuff
The same tech that can cure disease can attempt to adjust IQ... 

Once you have manipulated 1000 dna to remove diseases, you get "good" at it, not that hard for someone with a billion dollars to secretly do the same to enhance his kids, and scientists who would be overjoyed to help.  
DavidK543
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DavidK543,
User Rank: Strategist
4/24/2015 | 6:42:18 PM
Say YES to Khan
Khan Noonien Singh and his friends can make the human race better, stronger, smarter, faster.  We could be stronger than Klingons, sneakier than romulians, even defeat the borg with their leadership!

Don't listen to Kirk.  Kirk is a hypocrite!  If Kirk really cared about keeping human dna natural, he wouldn't be screwing around with all the green skinned alien girls!

I for one welcome our genetically engineered human overlords.  There is no reason why the rich should not use this tech to make their kids, smarter, stronger, sneakier...  so much better to rule the world with.  Countries may come and go but the multinational corporations will endure.  In Disney we Trust!
David Wagner
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David Wagner,
User Rank: Strategist
4/24/2015 | 1:19:10 PM
Re: Good Stuff
@TerryB- Thanks. the thing that really chaps me is that MIT is one of the larger sources of complaints about altering embryo DNA but they are the ones altering adult DNA. It strikes me as a perfect example of someone complaining more about competition than anything. 

Granted, i'm no scieintist. There is a difference. But you know who are scientists? The Chinese researchers. I trust them as much as the folks at MIT to take the right precautions. 

Either way, whether it is a law in Indiana, a hot new startup, or new science research, we know the money follows the best idea and the one society can tolerate the most. This will work itself out.
TerryB
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TerryB,
User Rank: Ninja
4/24/2015 | 1:13:46 PM
Good Stuff
One of your more thought provoking stories, Dave. I think this type of stuff will always rub people wrong on certain places of the religion scale. There are people who think having a doctor treat you is "messing with God's will". Personally, I'm not sure I see a whole lot of difference in altering adult DNA or embryo DNA. Assuming you can do it without side effects, I think the morality argument among the bulk of people will be what you are doing by altering the DNA. Curing serious illness, I think most will get on board with that. Increasing IQ or physical characteristics, I would suspect the majority might start drawing lines.

As far as East versus West, I think we are way too high and mighty sometimes. Take the Chinese initiative to limit population growth (which they are now relaxing), something like that would never fly in West, whether on grounds of religion or personal freedom. But to me, that was along the lines of the Spock-ism "The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few.". I'd be curious how many people would agree with that.
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