India should take the lead on the gene editing debate | editorials | Hindustan Times
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India should take the lead on the gene editing debate

It is now clear that gene edited humans are probably only a generation away. India is not at the forefront of this science but it could take the lead in starting an international discussion about access to gene editing technology.

editorials Updated: Aug 04, 2017 17:44 IST
In this photo provided by Oregon Health & Science University, taken through a microscope, human embryos grow in a laboratory for a few days after researchers used gene editing technology to successfully repair a heart disease-causing genetic mutation.
In this photo provided by Oregon Health & Science University, taken through a microscope, human embryos grow in a laboratory for a few days after researchers used gene editing technology to successfully repair a heart disease-causing genetic mutation. (AP)

Humanity is creating a post-natural future for itself, but giving only minimal thought to what that will mean. A joint team of United States, Chinese and Korean scientists this week succeeded in repairing a genetic mutation in dozens of human embryos. If these embryos had normally become babies, they would have been born with a genetic heart ailment. After the genetic editing done by the scientists, the resulting babies would have not only been free of this heart problem it would also no longer exist in their descendants. This work builds on earlier, less sophisticated, work done in other countries like China. These embryos were not allowed to become babies and much more experimentation, including clinical trials, will be required before a gene edited baby is be allowed to crawl the earth.

However, it is now clear that gene edited humans are probably only a generation away. The medical benefits of such technology are obvious. Over 30,000 single and multiple gene disorders could be eliminated forever. Many diseases like diabetes and cancer which are partly genetic in background would be easier to prevent. But this only scratches the surface. The human genome is the physical blueprint of a person and helps determine, among other things, intelligence, height, external features like skin and eye colour, and possibly longevity. Mankind is now on the verge of being able to predetermine these at the embryonic level.

Strangely, though this technology is now several years old and accelerating rapidly, there has been little or no attempt to begin a social or political debate about its future. The United Nations General Assembly and various international fora have sought to create a framework for genetic technology and its applications. These have all failed largely because of the total apathy among the governments concerned. Scientists have been holding regular meetings on the issue, but have found little public interest in their actions.

India is not at the forefront of this science but it could take the lead in starting an international discussion about access to gene editing technology. Domestically, the government should consider asking Indian scientists to both develop capabilities in this field and consider how it can benefit Indians medically but in an economically inclusive manner. The genetic era is on us and requires us to look well beyond our present concerns.