Noted Bioethicist Visits Grade 9 History Class

Noted bioethicist Jeantine Lunshof visited Noah Clarke's Grade 9 history class in February to discuss her work at the renowned Church Lab of Harvard Medical School, where she helps scientists address emerging questions raised by rapid advances in genomics and stem cell biology.

Earlier in the year, ninth graders had visited the lab to learn about ongoing projects spearheaded by the lab's leader and visionary, George Church, who is famed for trying to resurrect the wooly mammoth and to “write” a human genome from scratch; Church is also well known for arguing that it is ethically acceptable to edit the genomes of human embryos if doing so will safely alleviate suffering.

The visit to the lab and the followup discussion with Lunshof were both tied to a unit in Grade 9 history focusing on the development of and ethical dilemmas related to human enhancement enabled by new scientific discoveries. While at the Church Lab, ninth graders had heard from scientists working on human exoskeletons and a genetically engineered microbiome-enhancing food product—both examples of human enhancement.

In the history classroom with Lunshof, Shore students discussed the questions and implications raised by these and similar emerging areas of research. Lunshof, who is profiled in the Boston Globe, joined in a lively class discussion about the ideas in Michael Sandel's critical The Case Against Perfection, which the class had studied.

In that work, Sandel addresses the promise and the problems presented by breakthroughs in genetics. The promise, he explains, is that we will soon be able to treat and prevent a host of debilitating diseases. The problem, however, is that our newfound genetic knowledge may enable us to manipulate our nature—to enhance our genetic traits and those of our children. Sandel answers the question "What is wrong with re-engineering our nature?" by arguing that the drive to enhance human nature through genetic technologies is, in fact, wrong, because it represents a bid for mastery and dominion that fails to appreciate the gifted character of human powers and achievements.

In their research papers and in the discussion with Lunshof, students debated both sides of this position. Daniel Blundin put it this way: "Lebron James has a net worth of $300 million dollars. He is super famous. He is one of the best at an extremely popular sport. He is rated the seventh best athlete in in the world, and now, with genetic enhancement, you can make your child just like him. ... It is no longer a matter of can scientists genetically enhance human beings, it is a matter of whether or not they should."

Claudia Pollock saw a parallel between athletic enhancement and the kinds of "improvements" made behind the scenes in popular music. "The purpose of competition changes when all athletes compete at a superhuman ability. People born with natural talents are outshined by those have enhanced themselves beyond that point. This applies to the music industry as well. If you listen to new songs today, you will notice 'autotune' used heavily in most songs. As my dad said, 'Wow, people these days can’t tell the difference between fake talent and real talent.' Using enhancements for any spectacle that is supposed to showcase natural ability takes away from its telos and redefines what we think of as 'normal.'"

In addition to discussing the ethics of human enhancement with Grade 9 students, Lunshof shed more light on her role at the Church Lab. "I am not the ethics police," she joked. Much of her focus is on the regular lab meetings during which researchers discuss new ideas they're working on. "I listen for anything that could touch on a delicate area, such as linking the genome to IQ, or seeding mouse embryos with human stem cells . When I feel that something is a problem, I never hesistate to say, 'Don’t go down that road.'"

Lunshof described the intensifying debate over advanced genomics that developed after Church and his team succeeded in getting CRISPR, the revolutionary new genome-editing technology, to edit the genomes of human cells. "We faced two questions," she said. "Should CRISPR ever be used to 'enhance' people’s genetic inheritance? And, should it be used to edit the genomes of human eggs, sperm, or early embryos, producing changes that affect generations of 'designer' babies?"

With some of the latest research in the Church Lab focusing on the possibility of engineering human cells and organ-like tissues entirely in the lab, it's certain Lunshof will continue asking, and answering, ethical questions in science.
    • Jeantine Lunshof with Shore's ninth graders

    • Around Noah Clarke's Harkness table

    • At work in the Church Lab (Photo: Aram Boghosian, Boston Globe)

    • Shore students learning about exoskeleton research at the Church Lab

    • Outside the Church Lab