Biotechnology that can rewrite the genome heralds “a new era of human biology” and raises ethical questions for the medical community, experts in bioethics, and everybody else, according to a group of prominent researchers writing in Science.
The fuss is over “DNA scissors” discovered in microbes in 2012 that can be adapted to edit genetic material, potentially removing disease-enabling mutations and adding in “corrected” DNA strings. Known by its scientific acronym, the CRISPR-Cas9 protein may eventually help realize precision or individualized medicine, the ability to treat or avoid illness such as cancers, muscular dystrophy, and HIV/AIDS by tinkering with the actual genetic coding that makes a person that particular person.
“The simplicity of the CRISPR-Cas9 system allows any researcher with knowledge of molecular biology to modify genomes,” write the 18 scientists, from institutions that include Caltech, Berkeley, Harvard and Stanford. They are led by Nobel-winning biologist David Baltimore of Caltech.
That’s a complicated, and potentially dangerous, power. The group recommends that scientists avoid human genome-editing experiments, even where they’re legal, and that research and funding sources be transparent. This is the second call to arms in two weeks. An essay last week in Nature called for a moratorium on experiments on human embryos, eggs, or sperm.
Genome engineering has become so powerful that civic leaders and the general public should be brought into the debate, the scientists say. What happens if CRISPR snips out the wrong DNA, or adds in a sequence in the wrong place? If these techniques are ever deemed safe and effective, who would qualify for treatment, and when? The mind reels. When’s the next remake of The Fly? Don’t it make my brown eyes blue?