Genes influence health and disease, traits and behavior. With new tools available to edit those genes, scientists are now working towards things that once seemed impossible: creating immunity to viruses, eliminating genetic diseases—even resurrecting the woolly mammoth.
But when it comes to humans, scientists must contend with a question that will shape their work in the decades to come: Is it ethical to genetically engineer people?
Leading geneticist George Church spends a lot of time thinking about the answer.
A professor at Harvard Medical School, Church helped pioneer human genome sequencing and DNA editing. His lab is now using genetic engineering to solve problems of viruses, diseases—and yes, extinct mammoths. 60 Minutes first met him this spring through his attempt to bring back the mammoth in a report on Arctic permafrost thawing too quickly. Church’s colleagues are extracting DNA from mammoth bones and editing it into elephant DNA in an attempt to create an animal very similar to the ones that used to roam Siberia.
In addition to the scientists Church hires in his Harvard lab, he also brought on an in-house ethicist to help navigate thorny, big-picture questions and to map out potential consequences.
“Part of it is to make us think differently,” he said in an interview with 60 Minutes correspondent Scott Pelley. “And that helps having someone who’s formally trained in the humanities and philosophy and in ethics in particular.”
One of the ethical aspects Church considers is genetic equality. He does not want to see a world in which big advances in genetic engineering are available only to those who can afford it. He considers equality both when manipulating genes for therapy—like correcting genetic defects to cure genetic diseases—and for enhancement—augmenting genes beyond what is normal.
With genetic enhancement, technology could ultimately lead to so-called “designer babies,” infants that are born not only immune to viruses, but also smarter, faster, and stronger than their predecessors.
Church thinks genetic enhancement may be acceptable, so long as it is open to everyone.
“We’re not necessarily opposed to enhancement if everybody gets access to it simultaneously,” he said.
Church thinks of gene editing as engineering and argues that humans have already engineered enhancements to the human experience. He cited smartphones, which put vast digital knowledge within arm’s length, and planes, which allow people to travel to far-flung destinations with ease.
“He doesn’t see a great distinction between being able to travel 550 miles an hour on an airliner or changing somebody’s genome in order to make them maybe cognitively more astute,” Pelley said.
Not everyone agrees. A 2017 survey at the University of Wisconsin-Madison asked 1,600 members of the general public about their attitudes toward gene editing. The results showed 65 percent of respondents think gene editing is acceptable for therapeutic purposes. But when it comes to whether scientists should use technology for genetic enhancement, only 26 percent agreed.
Going forward, Church thinks genetic engineering needs government oversight. He is also concerned about reversibility—he does not want to create anything in his lab that cannot be reversed if it creates unintended consequences.
“A lot of the technology we develop, we try to make them reversible, containable,” Church said. “So the risks are that some people get excited, so excited that they ignore well-articulated risks.”
Back in his Harvard lab, Church’s colleagues showed Pelley their work on “mini brains,” tiny dots with millions of cells each. The cells, which come from a patient, can be grown into many types of organ tissue in a matter of days, making it possible for drugs to be tested on that patient’s unique genome. Church aims to use genetic engineering to reverse aging and grow human organs for transplant.
Pelley said he was struck by the speed with which medical advancements are coming.
“I imagine that medicine will be unrecognizable to us in just 50 years,” Pelley said.
The video above was produced by Brit McCandless Farmer. It was edited by Sarah Shafer Prediger.