The Ethical Dilemma of Gene Sequencing

Scientists could soon eliminate disease-causing genes in humans before they’re even born. But what are the risks?


Today’s geneticists are able to edit the human genome in ways unforeseeable less than a decade ago. But with discoveries like CRISPR and Cas9 come new risks. The debate around embryonic intervention, particularly when it comes to stem cell research and elective abortion, may soon add another layer rife with controversy: “personalized eugenics” through gene sequencing.

On this week’s episode of Inquiring Minds, Kishore Hari spoke to cancer geneticist Siddartha Mukherjee, an assistant professor of medicine and oncologist at Columbia University Medical Center. Mukherjee, author of the 2010 Pulitzer Prize-winning The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer, published his second book, The Gene, last month. You can listen to Kishore and Siddartha’s full interview on gene sequencing, therapy, and the human genome below:

Before specializing in cancer research, Mukherjee’s own interest in studying genetics was personal. His family had a history of both schizophrenia and bipolar disorder. Mukherjee says that vulnerability became part of his consciousness from an early age.

“Long before I became a doctor or a scientist, the shadow of hereditary illness was part of my family,” he says. “At some point in time, we could not not talk about it, and we did.”

Certain preventative measures, like prenatal diagnoses, can be used to identify and prevent chronic disease and disorders. Though Mukherjee is excited about the realm of new possibilities made possible by recent advancements in technology and in techniques like Cas9, a recently discovered method of genomic editing, he says interventional methods like genetic therapy should be reserved for conditions that cause the most suffering—not something arbitrary like height, for example.

The topic of embryonic gene editing is sure to come into the political sphere in the next few years, but before it reaches state capitols and corporate boardrooms, Mukherjee says public engagement is the most important factor in determining how genetic science will and should be practiced in America. While embryonic gene editing is an ethically controversial matter in the United States, doctors in China last year attempted to edit the genes of nonviable fetuses, and this year successfully did so.

“You can have much tighter scientific control, which is more worrisome to me,” Mukherjee says. Calling genomic editing “one of the most powerful and dangerous ideas” in science, he likens this moment to the creation of the atomic bomb. Writing about eugenics in The Gene, Mukherjee suggests genomic editing could have unintended similarities to more sinister ideas, like Nazi-era eugenics.

“I do think the specter of personalized eugenics is part of our future, in which we sequence all the genes of our unborn children, really unborn eggs, and screen them, and potentially implant only the ones that are desirable,” Mukherjee says, likening the possibility of personalized eugenics to the creation of the atomic bomb and calling it a potentially “terrifying moral conundrum.”

“Of course, this might alleviate various forms of suffering,” he continues, “but we need to know what the unintended consequences of these kinds of technologies are, before we blithely embark on this kind of personalized eugenics.”

Inquiring Minds is a podcast hosted by neuroscientist and musician Indre Viskontas and Kishore Hari, the director of the Bay Area Science Festival. To catch future shows right when they are released, subscribe to Inquiring Minds via iTunes or RSS. You can follow the show on Twitter at @inquiringshow, like us on Facebook, and check out show notes and other cool stuff on Tumblr.