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Genetic Engineering

by Sumeet Swarup

In November, 2018, He Jiankui, a scientist in China announced that he had successfully modified the genes of a human embryo, which had resulted in the birth of two baby girls (nicknamed Lulu and Nana) in Shenzhen. The news immediately shocked the world, with some people going so far as to call it the start of the era of designer babies.

Enter the field of Genetic Engineering, which involves altering the genetic make-up of living organisms – think Jurassic Park. Many technologies/techniques are used for Genetic Engineering. CRISPR (the one used by Dr. He) is one such technology that has seen very successful results in being able to make precise changes to the genetic makeup.

While Genetic Engineering has been deployed in plants (for improved food production), there is a fierce debate around using it on animals, especially primates. As far as humans are concerned, there is a more accepting attitude in the scientific community if the genetic modification is used for avoiding or curing terminal genetic disorders, if there is no other cure available. And even then it has to be done under supervision and with proper oversight. But if there are other cures available, or if the genetic modification will result in the offspring inheriting the changes, or if the modification is used for enhancing positive traits i.e. designing – then it is frowned upon, or there are explicit laws against this. In the case of Lulu and Nana, Dr. He claimed that he did it solely to suppress the HIV gene, since the father was HIV positive.

Recently the National Academy of Medicine and the World Health Organization setup committees to recommend rules and policies for genetic engineering, the idea being that these can then be taken up by individual Governments and passed into law as each country sees fit. The Committees will look at what is the science, what is permissible, what are the potential side effects, long term benefits and harms, risk assessment and profiling. The recommendations (target release date is middle of 2020) will include what can and cannot be done, what is the supervision and oversight required, what kind of testing and observation is required before human trials can be done, etc.

Whenever there is a crisis or a negative impact story, Governments and Civil Society will scramble together quickly, and setup rules and policies that will try and avoid future bad news. Data leaks, lynchings, censorship, gene editing and bankruptcies – these are the triggers for Governments to take action. If the triggers are negative, then the resultant rules are going to be controlling in nature. For emerging technologies in India, that adds to the negative news since rules have a tendency of becoming heavy handed during their implementation.

Shouldn’t we have a policy framework in place in India that is more incentive based, rather than punitive in nature? It certainly requires foresight and planning, but an incentive based system is less costly and more beneficial in the long run, so why don’t we use it more often? Two cultural reasons – (a) We tend to view the incentive awarding authority with suspicion, and a Government official does not want to be on the receiving end of that, and (b) We assume that the other person is trying to steal our lunch, and therefore we have to have enough rules to prevent the worst case scenario.

Cultural outlook tends to change slowly. But India, with its massive social and economic problems does not have the luxury of time. So perhaps genetic engineering is needed to change policy outlook itself.

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