This is a guest post by author Michael D'Ambrosio
Being a science-fiction writer, I’m always looking into the future and wondering what could be. Then I imagine being in that future with a cast of characters and a good plot. Like any good sci-fi writer, I read magazines like Popular Science and follow the latest space news like the accomplishments of Space-X. In what is usually an unrelated act a week ago, I researched stocks and was led to one particular biotech company’s stock with breaking news regarding gene-editing. Now, I don’t know how reliable this technology is nor do I know how it will be marketed, but the more I thought about it, the more questions I pondered. Keep in mind, my intent is not to judge the inventors of the technology nor is it to promote or condemn the company and its stock. It is simply to consider what next if this is truly a viable technology.
For most of us who don’t understand the technicals of genetics, I will attempt to explain briefly what gene-editing is. Strands of DNA are made of many segments consisting of four spaces each. Each segment determines one trait in a human body. Each space is filled with one of four letters. (I know, this sounds silly but this is what I read.) This new technology has the ability to change the incorrect letter to the correct one in that particular space if the existing segment has created a flawed trait, thus correcting the problem.
Let’s assume this is true and proven. You go to a facility with some form of cancer. This device can rewrite or edit the flawed trait code in your DNA and erase the cancer as if it was never there. Cool, right! Let’s consider the consequences.
First, if “imperfect” people can be corrected and flaws like cancer, multiple sclerosis and other debilitating diseases erased, then many people would live longer. The expensive aspects of healthcare would disappear. Assume we use this technology worldwide, then how much would the population increase. Would we be able to sustain such an increase with food? The “birth-death” model would be skewed immeasurably. So, we’re thinking now that this technology won’t be available to everyone and it will probably be too expensive. That makes a little more sense.
The next issue becomes this: who has access to this technology for their “fix”? If only the wealthy and the ruling classes can access it, then there will be a lot of angry people with afflicted family members and friends.
So let’s say we get past this. There’s a lottery or something to ensure so many of the less wealthy have their chance to access this technology. What safeguards are in place to ensure it is used ethically? Do we want the government to regulate it? We’ve seen how well that worked out with the banking system and the stock markets. Imagine that you go to a facility and you suffer from skin cancer. The technician operates the technology and it does its thing. Three days later, your skin is fine. Five days later, you are dead. This could be used as a silent assassin without safeguards.
Let’s consider human error. The technician was up most of the night with a crying infant. You are set up for the treatment and the technician negligently enters incorrect information or fails to check one of the parameters. The next day, you wake up with two noses! Just kidding. What if it were something more serious that may not be reversible? Who is responsible for that and what reparations are made? I doubt they’d be satisfactory.
And now for a scenario much more likely but difficult to prove. Imagine any group of people deemed undesirable whether it be race, nationality, ideology or other. Each of those individuals receiving treatment for an affliction could be made sterile without ever knowing it. As a result, those groups could unknowingly be on the road to extinction. While I laud those who are unlocking the secrets of “The Code of Life”, I can’t help but be concerned that their miracle invention for some could be the death sentence for many. Sounds like a good story, huh? In the not so distant future we will find out. I’d better get writing this tale before it’s not fiction anymore.