The ability to manipulate our genetic code seems like something out of science fiction. But with current advances, what sounds like fantasy has become a possibility. Necessitated by advancements of powerful technologies allowing for gene alteration, experts convened last week for a landmark summit in Washington, D.C. to debate the future of gene editing.
Experiments involving genetic modification have become increasingly popular due to the rise of techniques that make altering DNA easy. Used for things ranging from the creation of animal models of genetic diseases to GMO crops, the conference discussed the potential consequences of performing similar gene editing in humans.
The greatest debate was whether alteration of human embryos destined to become people, or germline modification, should be acceptable. Supporters argue that doing so could prevent many devastating genetic disorders or remove genes that increase susceptibility to illnesses such as cancer. However, many believe that too little is known about the safety of germline editing to allow it, especially as any genetic changes to the embryo would then be heritable. Others worry about the risk of eugenics. Marcy Darnovsky, director for the Center of Genetics and Society, suggested that germline modification could result “in a world of genetic haves and have-nots”.
Ultimately, the committee supported the use of gene editing in basic research and for the development of therapies using adult tissues, such as blood, that would not result in heritable changes. However, they stated that they felt germline modification was “irresponsible” until “the relevant safety and efficacy issues have been resolved” and “there is broad societal consensus about the appropriateness of the proposed application”.
Once thought to be science fiction, it is clear gene editing bears both great potential and great risk. An “ongoing forum” has been advised by the committee to continue discussing this controversial topic.
Photo: Chris Madden