Last week, the “International Summit on Human Gene Editing” was jointly convened by the Chinese Academy of Sciences, UK’s Royal Society, the U.S. National Academy of Sciences and the U.S. National Academy of Medicine. Sam Nunn School of International Affairs Associate Professor Margaret Kosal was one of 500 invited participants from more than 20 nations there to take part in discussions on the future of human gene editing and “designer babies.”
New technologies often bring new ways of doing things and improvements to health through new therapeutics. They also sometimes create new fears about unintended consequences, new weapons and broad ethical concerns. That’s why I participated in a global discussion on the scientific, ethical and governance issues associated with human gene-editing research and biomedical clinical uses of some of the newest biotechnologies.
These new techniques allow scientists and engineers to make precise changes in DNA more easily and more quickly than traditional genetic engineering methods. The best known of these techniques is called CRISPR (Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats in DNA). There’s a potential for a wealth of benefits along with concerns regarding misuse, including but not limited to potential use for new or enhanced biological or bioterrorist weapons.
The summit concluded with recommendations that it would be “irresponsible” to permanently alter the genes of human embryos, eggs or sperm for the purpose of producing a baby. However, the possibility of doing this in the future remains open if certain safety and ethical issues can be satisfactorily resolved, both in the lab and in society at large. At the same time, basic research and somatic cell clinical use (changes to DNA in human cells that are not permanent) are excluded from the proposed moratorium, so biomedical clinical uses to treat an individual are not affected. Understanding, knowledge, technology and politics associated with concerns and uses of gene editing techniques are likely to change in the years ahead.
Biotechnology and related fields have advanced significantly over the last 50 years. Advances in molecular biology and genetic engineering have revolutionized our understanding of diseases and greatly improved the fields of drug design and therapeutics, vaccines and disease prevention. As these fields have evolved, the potential for inadvertent negligence or purposeful misuse has also emerged. Biotechnology and bioscience have the potential for a “dual use” dilemma in that technological advances within these areas improve human health, while at the same time pose a threat as potential use in bioterrorism, biological weapons or other malfeasant uses.
New and unpredicted technologies are emerging at an unprecedented pace around the world. Communication of those new discoveries is occurring faster than ever, meaning that the unique ownership of a piece of new technology is no longer a sufficient position, if not impossible. In today’s world, recognition of the potential applications of a technology, the politics at work and a sense of purpose in exploiting it are far more important than simply having access to it.
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