Bioethics for Breakfast: A Snip Here and a Tuck There: Are There Limits to Editing Life?

bioethics-for-breakfastSean A. Valles, PhD, and Corey Washington, PhD, presented at the Bioethics for Breakfast event on February 18, 2016, offering perspective and insight on the topic, “A Snip Here and a Tuck There: Are There Limits to Editing Life?”

In 2015 a form of gene-editing technology called CRISPR-cas9 garnered considerable media attention. In principle it will give researchers the ability to edit individual genes in plants, animals or humans. The editing could have the intent of correcting mutated genes that would otherwise result in serious disease, or, alternatively, enhancing a normal gene to produce a superior version of that gene that would yield some superior health state. This technology is not perfected as yet, but researchers are actively engaged in moving that technology toward perfection so that it can have clinical applicability. In the United Kingdom Dr. Kathy Niakan has applied for government approval to use this technology to edit human embryos at the earliest stages of development, though none of those embryos would be allowed to be implanted in a uterus.

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Left to right: (standing) Corey Washington, Sean Valles, and Tom Tomlinson. Image courtesy of Libby Bogdan-Lovis.

How should this technology be assessed from an ethical point of view and from a public policy point of view? It is easy to conclude that this technology is ethically unacceptable so long as there are clear risks for bad outcomes for people due to imperfections in the technology. But if those imperfections can be eliminated so that we can say the technology is safe and effective, then are there any other ethical concerns that should govern or prevent the deployment of this technology to shape the genetic endowment of future children as well as other life forms? Or, to ask a question in the present, is it ethically acceptable to genetically alter the embryos of various primates now in order to have scientific confidence that the technology may be applied to human embryos? These questions were addressed and discussed by the event speakers and attendees during Thursday’s program.

Sean A. Valles, PhD
Sean Valles is Assistant Professor in the MSU Lyman Briggs College and Department of Philosophy, as well as an affiliate faculty member in the Ecology, Evolutionary Biology and Behavior program. He received his PhD in History and Philosophy of Science from Indiana University. His work examines the interplay between ethical and evidentiary issues in a variety of population health science areas. His research on medical genetics includes a critique of FDA policies on direct-to-consumer genomic testing technologies and examinations of how normality concepts and reproductive rights concepts developed during 20th century eugenics and medical genetics research programs.

Corey Washington, PhD
Corey Washington currently serves as Director of Analytics and Strategic Projects in Office of the Vice President for Research and Graduate Studies (OVPRGS) at MSU. He holds a PhD in Philosophy from Stanford University as well as a PhD in Neuroscience from Columbia University. Before coming to Michigan State in 2013, he taught Philosophy and Cognitive Science at both the University of Washington and the University of Maryland. Washington also worked in the private sector as a consultant at McKinsey and Company in New York, New York.

About Bioethics for Breakfast:
In 2010, Hall, Render, Killian, Heath & Lyman invited the Center for Ethics to partner on a bioethics seminar series. The Center for Ethics and Hall Render invite guests from the health professions, religious and community organizations, political circles, and the academy to engage in lively discussions of topics spanning the worlds of bioethics, health law, business, and policy. For each event, the Center selects from a wide range of controversial issues and provides two presenters either from our own faculty or invited guests, who offer distinctive, and sometimes clashing, perspectives. Those brief presentations are followed by a moderated open discussion.