Good Code is a weekly podcast about ethics in our digital world. We look at ways in which our increasingly digital societies could go terribly wrong, and speak with those trying to prevent that. Each week, host Chine Labbé engages with a different expert on the ethical dilemmas raised by our ever-more pervasive digital technologies. Good Code is a dynamic collaboration between the Digital Life Initiative at Cornell Tech and journalist Chine Labbé.

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On this episode:

From the generalization of embryo selection to safer and more precise gene-editing, Jamie Metzl is sure of it: we are about to enter an entirely brave new world of genetic engineering, in which evolution is Human-led.

Healthcare will be the first step of the genetic revolution. But it will not be the destination, he explains. More and safer uses of the technology in the field will lead the way to a wider array of enhancements, through incremental steps.

The potential of the technology is immense, but so are the possible abuses. To avoid these, we need to accept the fact that this revolution is coming, and think carefully of what we as species need and want, Metzl argues.

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We talked about:

  • In this episode, Jamie Metzl talks about IVF, and how the penetration of the technology is different in various countries, for cultural reasons. He explains that 2% of babies in the US are born with IVF, versus 10% in Denmark. Since the birth of the first IVF baby in the UK in 1978, over 8 Million babies have been born from IVF around the world, according to a report published by the European Society of Human Reproduction and Embryology. Read more about the progress of assisted reproduction in the world here.
  • Jamie Metzl talks about Preimplantation genetic diagnosis (PGD), a technology which already exists and through which embryos are tested for specific genetic abnormalities at an early stage of development. Read a clear explanation of the process here.
  • Metzl also mentions induced pluripotent stem cells (IPS cells). They are “adult cells that have been genetically reprogrammed to an embryonic stem cell-like state”, as the US Department of Health and Services explains. Read about their use today in The Scientist.
  • In this episode, we talk about the genetics of personality. Researchers in San Diego have identified areas of the genome that are associated with personality traits.
  • In our conversation, we talk about a company called Mapmygene, which offers genetic testing as a way to improve our lives and make better choices, based on our genetic code.  “Our gene tests were designed to discover genetic variations that contribute to intelligence, personality attributes, superior athletic performance, musical ability, linguistics and other areas where humans can excel”, the website advertises. “Psychologists and education specialists say that this is the ‘missing puzzle’ in their quest to help parents pick out the right development programs for their children”, it adds.
  • This idea of genetically-leveraged parenting and career choices brings to mind the 1997 movie Gattaca, featuring Ethan Hawke. In this sci fi drama, the hero (Ethan Hawke) wants to become an astronaut. But because he was not genetically engineered, he is not supposed to follow this path. But through grit, passion, and a fake DNA identity, he follows his dream…
  • The cost of genome sequencing has gone down tremendously over the past decade. Last November, an American company offered to sequence your whole genome for just $200. Read about it in this Wired article.
  • In this episode, our guest talks about mitochondrial replacement therapy. The practice, banned in the US, is being tested in the UK and other countries. It is sometimes referred to as “three-person IVF” because it introduces the DNA from a third person into the embryo.
  • Jamie Metzl also talks about He Jankui, a Chinese scientist who last year announced that he had genetically engineered the embryos of twin girls born in October 2018. The scientific community overwhelmingly condemned his experiment as unethical and unsafe. Jamie Metzl calls him “a villain.” He Jankui deleted a gene called CCR5. He was trying to confer the babies an increased resistance to HIV. But it is unclear what the consequences of his editing will be. Read this very thorough analysis of what happened and what comes next in Nature.
  • A Stanford bioengineer and inventor is now under a university investigation for his interactions with He Jankui, a former postodoctal student of his. “When and where should scientists report controversial research ideas that colleagues share with them in confidence?” That’s the very complex question raised by the New York Times.
  • In December 2018, after the Chinese reveal, the World Health Organization established an expert panel on the governance of human genome editing. Here is a list of its members, including our guest Jamie Metzl.
  • In March, a group of leading scientists in the field called for a moratorium on the gene editing of embryos. Read their open letter published in Nature. Jamie Metzl does not favour that approach. Read his op-ed published in the Financial Times.
  • The edition that He Jankui performed might protect these little girls against HIV. It might also make them more vulnerable to other viruses like the West Nile Virus. A study published in Cell also suggests that He Jankui might have enhanced their brains, according to this article in the MIT Technology Review.
  • And according to a new report, these CRISPR babies might have a shorter lifespan than the rest of us. The genetic mutation performed on their embryos has been shown to alter people’s lifespan by 1.9 years on average, according to this article in the MIT Technology Review.

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