Science or atrocity, where is the limit?

photo_camera PHOTO/PIXABAY

This is about creating human beings not only gifted, but with better characteristics, in the field of war and defence. It is no longer just a question of being smarter, faster, healthier, but also stronger and more resilient through genetic manipulation to even mould the 21st century soldier. 

At first glance, it sounds like a script for "Gattaca: Genetic Experiment", a film based on the philosophy of eugenics in search of perfect societies by genetically altering human beings to endow them with exceptional abilities, not only to beautify their appearance, but also to make them physically perfect.

The most recent experiment carried out in China is not part of a new science fiction film, but a reality that surely does not come to light every day, only this time it has been revealed by the South China Morning Post: "A team of military medical scientists in China says it has inserted a gene from the microscopic water bear into human embryonic stem cells that significantly raised the cells' resistance to radiation".

The article by Stephen Chen states that this trial happened within the orbit of the Beijing Academy of Military Sciences, which hopes to find a technique to create radiation-resistant soldiers in a nuclear scenario. 

Why use the water bear gene? Also known as the tardigrade piglet or moss, the eight-legged animal, less than a millimetre long, is considered the most resilient creature on earth; it can withstand temperature extremes of less than 200 degrees Celsius, boiling point hours and the atmospheric conditions of outer space. 

In general, science has been studying them for decades, and advances in biogenetics have identified a gene in tardigrades that can generate shield-like proteins that form a protective film.

"The Chinese team said they had found a way to introduce this gene into human DNA using CRISPR/Cas9, a gene-editing tool now available in most biological laboratories. In their laboratory experiment, nearly 90% of human embryonic cells carrying the water bear gene survived lethal exposure to X-ray radiation, according to the team led by Professor Yue Wen of the radiation biotechnology laboratory at the Beijing Academy of Military Sciences," according to the South China Morning Post.

Last October, such scientific findings were covered by the journal Military Medical Sciences and sparked growing interest in China's military industry. 

Work with embryonic stem cells has gained enormous scientific popularity as scientists seek to find answers to diseases such as cancer in search of a definitive cure or to ailments such as Alzheimer's or Parkinson's disease. China is in the race. 

Back in 2015, Chinese researchers shared with the international community their studies on editing the genomes of human embryos, the results of which were published in Protein & Cell. The team led by Junjiu Huang, from Sun Yat-sen University in Guangzhou, aimed to modify the gene responsible for thalassaemia B (which causes fatal blood diseases) using the gene editing technique called CRISPR/Cas9. 

Lucas Martín, a security and defence expert in Spain, urges caution when interpreting whether China's intentions are to create these modifications in order to develop super soldiers with such characteristics.

"I personally harbour certain doubts that there are scientists who are going as far as the article says. Maybe there are experiments going on to make people in the military heal their wounds faster or have more resistance to pain," he says. 

The military intelligence specialist recalls that there was initially talk of exoskeletons and their purpose, a development that in some parts of the world press was seen as the birth of new human killing machines, a kind of "Robocops". But to date it has had no such purpose.

"These exoskeletons were conceived in the military field with the function of allowing the soldier in action to tire less and have more endurance on the battlefield," he says. 

Will this be the century of the "Robocops"?

I doubt it. It seems to me that developments will be more along the lines of exoskeletons. We have the United States involved in it and, of course, China. I have seen images of soldiers engaged in logistics or weight bearing with exoskeletons that can lift or move loads far beyond what a trained human being could do with normal strength. 

History of warfare

Human testing has always been highly contested and controversial. It was not until after the revelations of the atrocities and inhumane practices carried out by scientists under the Nazi regime after Germany lost World War II that the first international code emerged.

As a result of the Nuremberg Trials to judge criminal activities and crimes against humanity committed by the Nazis, a group of German scientists were convicted of using different groups of concentration and extermination camp prisoners as guinea pigs. A long list of exposures to which, in the name of science, women, men, children and babies were exposed is documented, including serums against diseases; reactions of the human body to extremes of temperature and even altitude and lack of oxygen; embryonic crossbreeding between human and animal species; amputations and grafts; organ transposition and brain analysis; and experiments to increase Nazi Germany's security and military defence capabilities.

In this respect, Martín reminds us that it is never safe for someone to emerge with ideas beyond what is considered normal, ethical and moral. "There will always be a covert way of carrying out such experiments".

After the Nuremberg trials, the first international code of ethics for human research was born: the Nuremberg Code came into being on 19 August 1947. 

The Camilo José Cela University points out that under the Hippocratic precept "primun non nocere" an international precedent was set so that science would first and foremost "do no harm" and always count on the prior consent of the person. 

"This Code established the rules for carrying out experiments on human beings, with particular emphasis on obtaining the voluntary consent of the individual. It has since been regarded as the cornerstone of the protection of patients' rights," says the institution. 

The Nuremberg Code contains ten ethical principles that have had an influence on human rights, and from it other specific codes on ethics have emerged, for example: "The Declaration of Geneva (1948), the International Code of Medical Ethics (1949); the Declaration of Helsinki (1964); the Belmont Report (1978); the International Ethical Guidelines for Biomedical Research Involving Human Subjects (2002); the UNESCO Universal Declaration on Bioethics and Human Rights (2005)". 

"One should not play God and genetically modify human beings, I don't care if it is to have better soldiers in combat or as workers for something. If there is no boundary... a limit, where do we stop? I think it's a very sensitive issue and I'm in favour of this not happening in any field," Martin argues. 

The bioethical frontier

However, tests do happen and many are "underground". In this respect, Nuria Terribas, director of the Víctor Grifols Foundation and one of the most prestigious jurists in the field of bioethics and biolaw in Spain, reminds me in an interview that, unfortunately, there are laboratories that cross all the ethical boundaries that the scientific community may have set. 

"This is one of the problems of today's society, and with globalised technology it is very real. It's a bit like the example we are seeing with researchers in China and it's not the first time that they alter the consensus and go beyond what is accepted in principle. Those are the risks," she adds. 

So what about laws, treaties and international agreements in the field of science?

There are probably a lot of experiments going on today that only come to light when the researcher gets a positive result and wants to publicise it because it gives him prestige or he wants to publish his results. What does not come to light is because it does not give the expected results, so there is a lot of opacity and it is difficult to control because the legislations are not homogeneous either. Nor is there a global consensus on what can and cannot be done.

And without these clearly pre-established limits on what can and cannot be done in science, adds the vice-president of the Bioethics Committee of Catalonia, there may be many researchers who go their own way or who are at the service of certain ends.  

"And that is the difficulty of this issue: we are entering a risky area because everything that is genetic intervention and that can alter the future offspring of people is a very risky area because we don't know the collateral effects it can have," Terribas points out.

We saw this with Dolly the sheep that was cloned in 1997 by scientists at the Roslin Institute in Edinburgh, who announced their discovery to the world seven months after Dolly was born.

That is why I point out that it is only great achievements that are made public... failures are hidden.  In a way, Dolly the sheep was a failure and very little was said about it because it was an experiment that did work, but later it was seen that it aged prematurely and had many developmental difficulties, so in the end it was not a total success.

For the director of the Chair of Bioethics at the University of VIC, it is very important to take "ethical precautions", which is why Terribas brings up the more recent case, also originating in China, of two twins named Lula and Nana, whose DNA was modified by the Chinese biophysicist He Jiankui, in order to immunise them against the HIV virus. He also used the CRISPR technique to alter the CCR5 gene related to genetic immunity to AIDS in the twins' embryos. 

The international scientific community does not know how many years and how many failures are behind Jiankui's research. The scientist decided to publish his research at the end of December 2019 after considering that he had achieved a success story. 

"Science in itself is neither good nor bad, it is neutral. But it all depends on what application and use is made of it. History shows us that human beings can use that science and knowledge to the detriment of humanity, that's the importance of science to mark those limits... those boundaries, that supervision by research committees that oversee the ethical aspect of what you want to do to see if you can give the green light or not," she said.

In 1932 the British writer Aldous Huxley published the dystopia "Brave New World", which seems to be totally premonitory of this century, are we going to that world?

It all depends on what we mean by a brave new world. We saw in the Nazi regime this quest for the pure, Aryan race, and they certainly didn't have the knowledge or the capacity that genetics gives us today. This same obsessive idea in the 21st century would be extremely dangerous, so it all depends on what is meant by a happy world.

Terribas points out that what is desirable is for knowledge to make it possible to cure illnesses, to raise the quality of life of human beings, the risky and unacceptable thing would be to use, for example, genetics to look for models of societies in the style of Gattaca with valid and invalid human beings. But who sets the limits for science, she asks, and this should be reviewed sooner rather than later.