Published by the Students of Johns Hopkins since 1896
October 19, 2021

Professors talk ethics of gene editing and Gattaca

By MEGHANA RAVI | October 10, 2019

We begin in the not too distant future, where perfection has pervaded the genome itself, elevating individuals into what seems like the best version of themselves. Children are edited to be brilliant, healthy and beautiful — as genetically ideal as possible. This is the world of Gattaca, a science fiction cult classic that remains significant in today’s bioethical conversations about genetic research. 

On Oct. 2, the Parkway Theatre had a one-night-only screening of the movie, followed by a conversation with professionals in the field, analyzing the science and ethics of the movie in greater detail. The two panelists were Nathaniel Comfort, a professor at the Institute of the History of Medicine, and Debra J.H. Mathews, the assistant director for science programs at the Berman Institute of Public Health. 

Gattaca follows the story of Vincent Freeman. Born a de-gene-rate, or one not genetically modified like the rest of society, Vincent’s life has been set for a harsh course strife with prejudice from the enhanced elite. To escape this, he borrows the identity of Jerome Morrow, a crippled swimmer who once traveled in the zenith of society, but now lives the life of a recluse. The two develop a close friendship, each reflecting a different story about the problems with their utopian society. 

In the opening remarks for the film, Mathews talked about the Human Genome Project. Scientists only started the actual process of sequencing in 1996, so Gattaca was filmed and released while scientists were still sequencing. 

“We were in that place where we could imagine all of the things we might be able to do with this science, but we didn’t yet know because we didn’t have the science,” Mathews said in his remarks. 

Comfort described two waves of genetic engineering. The first wave, in the pre-2000s, primarily viewed genetic engineering as a route to gene therapy. In this time, two taboos were established. First, that there would be no genetic enhancement, only treating disease. Second, that there would be no germline engineering. 

“Both of these taboos are dissolving,” Comfort said, discussing the second wave of genetic engineering currently ongoing.

According to both Comfort and Mathews, the combined conditions of scientific advancement and ethical fogginess make further discussions on this topic urgent. 

So although Gattaca was released in 1997, almost 22 years ago, the speakers and the audience agreed that the scientific quandaries portrayed in the film are especially pertinent. 

“What struck me was really how prescient so much of the movie was. A lot of the science behind it is still not possible but a lot of it is a lot more possible or plausible today than it was then,” Comfort said. 

Freshman Femi Agabalogun commented on gene-editing tools such as the CRISPR-Cas9 system. 

“We’ve come a long way in terms of genetics using CRISPR, so we’re getting closer to the reality of the film. Now is the critical time to just think over the possibilities and the consequences,” he said in an interview with The News-Letter.

Gattaca also turned thoughts in other, significant directions. When watching the movie, Natalie Apcar, a staff member at Jhpiego, a nonprofit affiliated with Hopkins, found a close connection to our current political climate. Specifically, the debate surrounding abortion. 

“I don’t think we should have a world where the wealthy and privileged can choose to have a child without genetic mutations but some women who are less privileged can’t even choose whether or not to have a child,” she said. “The people in that movie who were genetically modified — it’s clearly a planned pregnancy then. The de-gene-rates seem to be non-planned. What a world does that create?”

After the movie, audience members had the opportunity to share their opinions in a question and answer session. Meghana Shetty, a graduate from the Bloomberg School of Public Health, appreciated the chance to hear what other people think of the matter. 

“I thought it was interesting to hear some of the opinions from the audience too. The talk was great — it was very cool to have their professional opinions — but it was very curious to see how much diversity of thought there was,” she said.

While the movie was prescient in many ways, both Comfort and Mathews cautioned the audience that Gattaca’s genetic explanation of behavior was wrong. 

“Genetics explains a small portion of behavioral traits. To be able to say that person’s going to be more violent or any more loving... is not something that we can do and not, because of the way genetics works, something that we are likely ever to be able to do in ways that are meaningful,” Mathews said. 

Comfort explained that there was a vast number of genes that code for any complex behavioral trait. This means that it is unlikely that parents will ever be able to control the personality or intelligence of future children. Even curing all genetic predispositions seems unlikely. 

Mathews talked about how most genetic diseases, like Huntington’s Disease, are not linked to just one or two genes. According to Mathews, there are a slew of combinations and possibilities, making the likelihood of getting an illness through genetic mutation uncertain. 

“The vast majority of genetic mutations are cloudy with a chance of rain,” she said. 

Ultimately, while the movie brought up many scientific questions, both Comfort and Mathews emphasized that these questions don’t necessarily demand a scientific answer. Comfort described the idea of Scientism — or the idea that science will be able to answer all of our questions. He also explained that there were questions beyond science’s scope. Referencing the AIDS crisis in particular, Matthews noted that citizens themselves have the power to shape scientific ethics. 

“The tricky bit here is that the product of the research is a human,” Mathews said. “Research that bears on questions of human being and what it means to be human: I think it’s not just the scientists who get to decide that. I think that’s a much broader question and we need to bring more people into that conversation.”

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