The Churchillian dilemma of Gene Editing

By Felicity Crawshay-Williams

Before the start of World War ll in 1939, it became apparent to the Allies that the Germans were transmitting encrypted radio messages. Polish intelligence later informed the British that the secret messages took the form of a cryptographic cypher, encrypted with a typewriter-like enigma machine. Shortly after the British gained access to the enigma machine, they undertook the challenge of cracking the cypher, which was accomplished thanks to the efforts of many brilliant mathematicians including Alan Turing and Gorden Welchman. Of course, knowing how to decipher the code was only part of the challenge, and it took another several months before the facilities at Bletchley park were scaled up to record and decipher the German transmissions in near real time. Next, Allied strategists needed to sift through the messages to build a comprehensive picture of the German strategy from the miscellaneous assortment of transmissions that were received. Ultimately, the important points were presented to Winston Churchill, who was faced with an extremely challenging question: what should be done with this novel information

During this time another form of code was being deciphered, found within the very cell of every human body. Although it has always been apparent that some sort of hereditary information is transmitted through generations, it wasn’t until the 1950s that scientists discovered that this hidden hereditary information was stored within DNA. Shortly after discovering this, scientists undertook the challenge of cracking the code, which was accomplished in the early 1960s thanks to the efforts of many scientists including Marshall Nirenberg and Har Gobind Khorana. Of course, knowing how to interpret the code was only part of the challenge, and it took another several decades before the entire human genetic code could be read, which was accomplished by the Human Genome Project in 2003. Next, as part of an ongoing process, scientists are sifting through this genetic information to build a comprehensive picture of the function of every one of our approximately 20,000 genes, using an ever-growing assortment of biological experiments. Ultimately, as society is presented with the ground breaking findings of this research, we also face an extremely challenging question: what should be done with this novel information? 

Although incomplete, our current understanding of the genome is not to be underestimated. We are aware that specific genes have roles in creating specific characteristics such as eye colour, muscle strength and risk of developing cancer. Simultaneously, advances in biotechnology have created a new field called gene editing, whereby technology is capable of precisely modifying genes by replacing, deleting or adding genetic material within segments of DNA. An example of this gene editing technology is called “CRISPR-Cas9” or more commonly “CRISPR” gene therapy which was used inside the human body for the first time in March 2020, to treat a hereditary blindness disorder. In this hour-long treatment, doctors dropped components of the CRISPR system to a region beneath the retina, in the hope that it will be able to remove mutations which cause the disease. We have yet to see if the procedure was successful.

Despite the advantages of knowing aspects of the German strategy, having this knowledge was not without downsides: Churchill knew that if he acted too recklessly, the Germans would suspect that their transmissions were broken and would change the code, eliminating this valuable source of information. Similarly, many scientists argue that it is reckless to start using gene editing in humans because of unintentional modifications yielding harmful side effects. For example, some CRISPR complexes used to treat cancer have the potential to target the wrong gene leading to mutations which increase the likelihood of cancer. Similar to wartime, making the wrong decisions can cost the lives of innocent people.

Gene editing also opens up ethical questions that don’t have an easy parallel within the World War ll narrative: for example, creating “designer babies” by using gene editing on a human embryo. Although scientists and intellectuals have mused about this possibility for years, it has recently become a reality. In 2019 the Chinese scientist He Jiankui was jailed for three years for creating the world’s first “gene-edited” children, by using CRISPR to modify an HIV gene called CCR5 at an embryonic stage. This form of gene editing is called germline editing and little is known about the effects this rewiring of the genetic code has when passed to future generations.

The intelligence gathered from breaking the enigma code and Churchill’s subsequent use of that information played a fundamental role in shortening the war, and ultimately helped lead to the development of computers. Analogously, the discovery of the human genetic code has led to the explosion of new scientific disciplines as we are in a global race to further our understanding of the human genome. History looks back fondly not only on the scientists in Bletchley park, but on how Churchill strategically made decisions based on the information known. How will history look back on actions in the 2020s with regards to gene editing? 


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