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Influential scientists support gene-editing humans

An influential science organisation created by the National Academy of Sciences and National Academy of Medicine has lent its support to using gene-editing technology to prevent babies being born with diseases or disabilities.

The 21-member group released the ‘Human Genome Editing: Science, Ethics and Governance’ report in a journal published by the National Academies Press.

In the report, the researchers endorse the alteration of human eggs, sperm and embryos as long as certain conditions are met.

Namely, they advise that gene editing is only done to prevent diseases or disabilities, for which “no reasonable alternative” exists. There is also support for a long-term plan to track the effects of the procedure through following generations.

The gene-editing debate is up for discussion due to CRISPR, a revolutionary gene-editing technique that has the potential to not only rid babies of diseases, but also make cosmetic enhancements.

According to the Broad Institute, the groundwork for CRISPR was first discovered in the ’90s. However, scientists waited until 2013 to use it to successfully harness the technique for genome editing.

The name CRISPR stands for Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats and it makes it possible for us to cut out DNA from a defective gene and then repair it by inserting a functional gene.

The Harvard Graduate School of Arts and Sciences gives this “simple” explanation for how it does that:

Interspersed between the short DNA repeats of bacterial CRISPRs are similarly short variable sequences called spacers These spacers are derived from DNA of viruses that have previously attacked the host bacterium. Hence, spacers serve as a ‘genetic memory’ of previous infections. If another infection by the same virus should occur, the CRISPR defence system will cut up any viral DNA sequence matching the spacer sequence and thus protect the bacterium from viral attack. If a previously unseen virus attacks, a new spacer is made and added to the chain of spacers and repeats.

Easy, right? Well…not really.

If it isn’t making much sense you can also check out these ELI5 (Explain Like I’m 5) posts on Reddit. For even more, Radiolab has an excellent podcast on CRISPR too.

Understandably, the ability to edit human genes has raised some ethical concerns.

One concern is the “slippery slope” argument. One day you are at the clinic saying you’d like a healthy baby, the next you are requesting a highly intelligent Superbaby – or so the argument goes. This will lead to new social classes and suddenly we are in Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. In case you slept through Year 12 English, that’s a world in which people are systematically and rigidly divided into separate “castes” thanks to gene editing. Not good!

Another worry is the relative lack of research into the technology’s long-term implications. CRISPR and its related technologies are new, and we are still figuring out exactly how they work. Premature editing of humans may result in some “accidents”. Insert your favourite zombie apocalypse movie here.

Thirdly, there is the moral argument. For religious folks, the idea of tampering with genes is just plain wrong.

Of course, when we select a mate to have children with we are performing a kind of genetic engineering. Among other things, people who want children select mates who they consider to have “good” genes. But Creationists see that selection as quite natural. The presence of lab coats suggests that we are “playing God”, which we have been taught to believe won’t end well.

It’s early days yet, so we don’t know where CRISPR and gene editing will take us. But the National Academy panel has deemed that we should proceed, albeit with caution.

About the author

Stefan is an Adelaide-based freelance writer. In his spare time, he plays tennis badly, collects vinyl and brushes up on his Mandarin. Follow Stefan on Twitter

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