Maimonides Society Hosts Discussion on Gene Editing

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Correction: In the original version of this article, Dr. Kahn was quoted as saying “congenital death” was listed as an issue that could be debated on whether it qualified as treatment or enhancement. The actual quote was “congenital deafness.” 11/15/2019, 9:38 AM.

In 2007, Jewish video game developer Ken Levine released his magnum opus: “BioShock.” This dystopian game features a world with no restrictions on scientific research, where denizens safeguard their property from each other by genetically modifying themselves to the point where they can shoot everything from fire to lightning to wasps out of their fingertips.

Obviously this is science fiction. But attending the Nov. 5 lecture “Genetic Tinkering: Could We? Should We?” made me think that the line between science fiction and science fact are starting to blur very quickly. Held at Temple Oheb Shalom, the panel featured medical professionals describing how we are rapidly hurtling toward the startling world of genetic modification.

Organized by The Associated: Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore’s Maimonides Society, the event featured Dr. Jeffrey Kahn, the Andreas C. Dracopoulos Director of the Johns Hopkins Berman Institute of Bioethics. Dr. Yoram T. Unguru served as moderator; he is a pediatric hematologist/oncologist with joint faculty appointments at The Herman and Walter Samuelson Children’s Hospital at Sinai and The Johns Hopkins Berman Institute of Bioethics.

With an audience of a few dozen attentive listeners, Kahn described the current trajectory of the field of genetic modification, along with its promise and perils.

“Somatic gene editing has the potential to offer new, more precise, maybe safer ways to treat diseases,” Kahn said.

“Somatic” refers to the type of gene editing that affects the genetics of only a single individual, and not any of the individual’s future descendants, he explained. By contrast, “germline” gene editing involves modifications to reproductive cells like sperm or eggs and can have lasting consequences not only for a specific patient, but for that patient’s children, grandchildren, and potentially far further down that line.

Kahn considers somatic gene editing easier to ethically justify due to its capacity to affect only individual patients, while warning that “when it crosses the germ line we’ve lost control of it,” he said.

He also mentioned the danger of “rogue uses,” highlighting the case of the Chinese researcher, Professor He Jiankui, who in November 2018 shocked the world when he genetically altered twins to try to give them protection against HIV.

“[Professor He] didn’t disclose that he was taking the embryos that he was manipulating, and implanting them into women’s bodies,” Kahn said. “That was all not disclosed, kind of really worrying the community of science that this guy is not a charlatan by any stretch, but that he’s a rogue.”

While much of the lecture focused on the nuts and bolts of the hard science, it didn’t take long for the evening to veer into a more esoteric realm.

For instance, one audience member prefaced his question for Kahn with a brief synopsis of the Star Trek film, “The Wrath of Khan.”

“So, in the Star Trek universe, they ban genetic enhancement because of the eugenics war,” the person began. “I think it’s inevitable that even if the, all the regulatory agencies ban this, that will happen. So how do we legislate to ban eugenics?”

In response, Kahn (the doctor, not the fictional space warlord) said it’s one thing to treat disease, cure disease, and prevent disease, and it’s another to enhance. He also acknowledged that the distinction between disease treatment and enhancement can become increasingly nebulous.

“Cystic fibrosis is a disease, Tay-Sachs is a disease, Huntington’s is a disease. But when you start to get into things like congenital deafness, accidental disease, Down syndrome,” even short stature, it gets harder and harder, he said. “In fact, the definition has gotten to be really, really slippery.”

One audience member asked if unethical foreign governments could use gene editing to win Olympic medals, with Kahn acknowledging that “gene doping” is a legitimate concern: “Lots of people are concerned about that, because it would be much more difficult to detect; you know, Russia has shown its willingness to do all sorts of things…”

“There’s also been work to create ‘chimeras’,” Kahn said, a clear reference to the creature from Greek myth that was part lion, part goat, and part snake, “cross species combinations with neural cells from humans into the brains of non-human animals. Which raises questions of whether mascots like Mickey, right? Um, and not to be cheeky, but what happens when a non-human primate is effectively made smarter with human neural tissue?”

Someone in the audience whispered: “planet of the apes.”

Unguru offered a piece of wisdom which, intentionally or not, echoed the iconic words spoken by Ben Parker to his mutated nephew in Tobey Maguire’s 2002 film “Spider-Man”:

“Like many emerging technologies it holds great promise, but with great promise comes great responsibility,” he said.

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