To fiddle with Creation has always a huge temptation for man. More than the conquest of Space, still mostly considered impossible and, therefore, less attractive. Thousands of years ago the first surgeons cured – not always successfully – abscesses and bone fractures. A few centuries later, Leonardo illustrated in a detailed way the anatomy of human body. At the beginning of the 19th century, finally, the writer Mary Shelley wrote her Modern Prometheus, later renamed into Frankenstein, in which she gave voice to science’s forbidden dream: defeat death.
Rationality and awareness of being mortal push us not to accept what cannot be avoided. Sometimes, it leads us to progress in the medical field, just think of the vaccines and therapies that have significantly lowered mortality rate in the Western world. In other cases, however, it leads us towards gray areas where what is right and what is wrong, ethics and cynicism blend. How far can we go? Is there a limit to knowledge? And most importantly, what is the “lesser evil”? Questions that arise whenever we find ourselves in front of bioethics, where science, religion, and morality face each other, as if we lived in Galileo’s times. They become topical again these days, when Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA) – the British authority in the field of assisted fertilization and embryology – has approved the request of the scientist Kathy Niakan to use genetically modified embryos in her research.
There is a noble goal, let us make no mistake. The team’s studies aim at providing deeper understanding of what happens in the early stages of human life. To understand – among other things – which genetic factors may have an impact on cases of miscarriage. These experiments will employ unused in vitro embryos and will be held at the Francis Crick Institute in London. They will be conducted with the aid of a kind of molecular laser able to work with extreme precision on human DNA. The genes will be turned off individually to see what function they have. Experiments will begin on one cell and will finish when its development will produce 250 cells. At this point, the embryo will be destroyed. Considering that life is sacred, this is where ethical doubts begin to arise. In short, if we profess that human dignity is born at the moment of conception, how can we accept the use of “canned” embryos and their subsequent disintegration for the sake of scientific progress? It is an insult to life.
The good news, so to say, is that they will not be allowed to implant those “GMO embryos” to women. The mutants, in short, will never come to birth. At least not yet… The geneticist Edward Boncinelli, interviewed by AGI, defined the British research as “basic” and excluded the possibility that it may trigger the creation of ‘‘made-to-order’’ children. Nonetheless, he was not able to predict whether such a hypothesis might be taken into consideration in the future. “Examining in order to understand something is never wrong – he said – but we cannot exclude the hypothesis that one day science will lead us to create genetically modified children.” Then, he added: “We cannot know whether this research will be ‘the beginning of anything, but sooner or later someone will undertake research that will lead to the birth of ‘‘made-to-order’’ children.
As it happened in the case of atom splitting. Enrico Fermi discovered a new source of energy and could not imagine that in a few years it would have been used to raze Hiroshima and Nagasaki to the ground. There is risk that the findings of this research may give biogenetics a decisive impulse towards the creation of modified human beings. It is a practice on which researchers are working in different parts of the world.
Last April, a group of scientists in China admitted they had begun tests on embryo modification. The experiment was carried out on 86 embryos with the CRISPR-Cas9 technique (the same one that is going to be used in the UK). In the end, 71 of them survived, but only a few showed new genetic material. According to geneticists, in the following years handling techniques will allow researchers to modify Qi up to 60 points more. Nietzsche’s scary Ubermensch may in fact soon leave philosophy and become a scientific reality, putting humanity on the path of decline.