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China Triggering A Race For Gene Editing Predominance

The fear of falling behind the surging dragon in a field that could overhaul sectors, including healthcare, agriculture, and critically the military should urge other global powers, India included, to keep pace with controlled competing programs

Photo Credit : Shutterstock

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In one of the biggest scientific breakthroughs ever, a group of international researchers at a University in Oregon edited and repaired disease-causing mutations out of the genes in human embryos using a technique, CRISPR. “It feels a bit like one small step for (hu)mans, one giant leap for (hu)mankind’ moment,” were the thrilled words of Jennifer Doudna, one of the discoverers of the procedure.

The step though minor, with clinical trials still banned in the United States, opens up a realm of exciting possibilities, by giving us a theoretical capability of being able to eliminate several major genetically inherited diseases including certain variants of cancer, right at the embryonic stage even before a baby is born. Even subsequent generations would be devoid of these maladies, as the process removes the disease causing gene variant from the family lineage.

The technique once perfected could allow us to potentially modify embryos to engineer enhanced humans with the traits we desire, causing many detractors to raise ethical concerns, along with fears of the revival of the infamous field of eugenics, and the social upheaval that could follow.

Widespread fears also exist within the scientific and policy-making community that humans are not smart enough to comprehend the long-term consequences of our actions. For instance, if humans hypothetically could have edited out the gene causing the sickle cell disease a thousand years back, malaria would have wiped out our species by now, since the sickle cell gene protects us from the still dreaded disease.

While the West grapples over the practical and moral predicaments surrounding germline gene editing and genetic engineering, China has made rapid strides in this field, with their authoritarian decision making process and their Confucian philosophy that believes that someone becomes a person only after they are born, giving them a distinctive leeway over their rival democracies weighted down by percolating religious influences.

Editing the human germline is still forbidden in India. Apprehensions persist that this technique, without adequate regulations, could resurrect the banned prenatal sex determination and encourage unsafe foetal management procedures, to satiate societal prejudices towards female and dark skinned children.

It is hard not to notice that the Indian voice remains feeble in various international summits, forums and regulatory institutions on gene editing while countries like the US, China and some of the EU members dominate the narrative. Domestically, we are yet to create even generic policies or a basic framework concerning the issue. We are witnessing an increasingly worrying propensity of our government diluting scientific, technical and R&D programs in favor of various populist and sectarian retrogressive pursuits.

Nevertheless, the fear of falling behind the surging dragon in a field that could overhaul sectors, including healthcare, agriculture, and critically the military should urge other global powers, India included, to keep pace with controlled competing programs – covertly or overtly, akin to the days of the nuclear arms and space race during the cold war.

Disclaimer: The views expressed in the article above are those of the authors' and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of this publishing house. Unless otherwise noted, the author is writing in his/her personal capacity. They are not intended and should not be thought to represent official ideas, attitudes, or policies of any agency or institution.


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Anil K. Antony

Anil is a Venture Architect, Technology Evangelist and a Social Entrepreneur. He is the Executive Director of Cyber India (www.cyberindia.org), a think tank in cyber security and surveillance technologies and the Vice President and a member of board of trustees of Navoothan Foundation (www.navoothan.org), a non-profit focusing on healthcare and empowerment of women.

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