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.

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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