Professor Stefan Lorenz Sorgner on Genome Editing

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“People have the right to make bold choices. In the course of history, things that are successful continue to happen.” Professor Stefan Lorenz Sorgner

In an interview with NEMO Kennislink, a leading Dutch scientific news website, JCU philosophy professor Sorgner commented on the latest developments in the field of genome editing. The potential benefits of genome editing are enormous. Yet, the more beneficial a technology is, the more risks can be associated with it. In any case, it is important for anyone to reflect upon the ethical and cultural implications of genome editing which, according to Professor Stefan Sorgner, might be the most powerful technological invention at the beginning of the 21st century.

Second from left: Professor Stefan Lorenz Sorgner

Second from left: Professor Stefan Lorenz Sorgner

Recently, the most discussed case in this field was related to research undertaken by Jiankui He, a Chinese biophysician who was the first scientist to genetically engineer the germ line of human embryos. His goal was to make them immune to HIV and to develop a genetic vaccination against the virus. He made his experiments public on the 27th of November 2018. His announcement caused an outcry in the international scientific community, which for the most part believed that it was too risky to try out this procedure on human beings.

In his interview with NEMO Kennislink, Professor Sorgner mentioned British physician Edward Jenner, who developed the smallpox vaccine at the end of the 18th century after testing it on his gardener’s eight-year-old son. The procedure was enormously risky but it worked. Professor Sorgner stressed that it might be helpful to consider the fact that it led to the eradication of smallpox, saving the lives of millions of people.

When undertaking his experiments, Jiankui He, in contrast to Jenner, asked the parents for their consent, which they granted. “Shouldn’t parents have the right to agree to risky treatments?” Professor Sorgner asks. How would the scientific community view Jiankui He’s experiments if they led to a reliable genetic vaccination against HIV by means of which we might be able to eradicate AIDS in the same way as the smallpox vaccination?

These and related topics were also discussed at the 25th International Conference of the Friedrich Nietzsche Society, which took place at Tilburg University, Netherlands at the beginning of September 2019, and which was dedicated to the theme of “Nietzsche and Humanity: (Anti-) Humanism, Posthumanism, Transhumanism.” Professor Sorgner was a keynote speaker at the event. He was joined by fellow keynote speakers Rosi Braidotti (Utrecht University), Christine Daigle (Brock University) and Nick Martin, University of Birmingham, as well as Martine Prange (Tilburg University) and Rebecca Bamford (Quinnipiac University & University of Fort Hare) who organized it.

In Spring 2020, Professor Sorgner will offer a “Bioethics” course, which will deal with the ethics of genome editing. Professor Sorgner’s “Posthuman Studies” course, which will also be offered in Spring 2020, will discuss the wider cultural implications of genome editing, e.g. the use of genome editing for realizing works of bioart like Alba the Fluorescent Rabbit by Eduardo Kac.