We Should Be Talking About Human Gene Editing At the Dinner Table

CRISPR was used on viable human embryos last week and there's no going back.

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Mar 13 2017, 6:45pm

Last week, for the first time, scientists in China announced they had successfully edited the genes of fertilized human embryos, and fully cured a genetic mutation in one of them. Now that the technology's use in humans is quickly becoming a reality, there's a question before us: When is it okay to use CRISPR technology to save lives, and where do we draw the line?

The decision should not live in the ivory tower—CRISPR is perhaps the largest and most important scientific experiment of our time. It offers us the possibility of curing genetic disorders, making plants hardy and disease-resistant to feed more people, and changing the way we look at the human body altogether. Genetics are no longer destiny if this tool becomes widely accepted. Planning a family will be altered completely.

With such high stakes, how the public engages with CRISPR will, quite literally, determine the future of humankind. Luckily, it's the perfect time for that dialogue to flourish.

There's widespread disagreement about how far we should go. On the one hand, advocates say CRISPR could help us tackle genetic diseases and wipe out horrible illnesses, like sickle cell anemia and cystic fibrosis. Meanwhile, skeptics worry that changing the germline, the genes we inherited and pass on to our kids, is dangerous. Tapping into the genetics that shape the makeup of our species is a dangerous way to "play God," and tamper with nature.

Scientists and lawmakers are grappling with how to regulate CRISPR, if at all, but those perspectives continue to change alongside the public's attitude. The United Nations advised against editing human embryos in 2015. But the rules seem to be relaxing globally as scientists break barriers, and more people understand the technology.

Most Americans are still generally fearful of biohacking, even if improves their lives, but across the world, people are examining the grey areas. Bioethicist Silvia Camporesi and her colleagues put out a survey last year to gauge public views on the technology. "I don't think anyone can get this genie back in the bottle - and regulation will not be universal. Regulation will be very difficult to enforce, world-wide," said one anonymous participant.

Human embryonic stem cell. Image: Ryddragyn/Wikimedia

Scientists on the frontlines aren't shying away from this debate. They understand that the CRISPR question is a populist one. Emmanuelle Charpentier, who, along with Jennifer Doudna, were instrumental in harnessing the CRISPR mechanism (a defense system that evolved in bacteria) into a technology, said inviting public commentary is critical. 

"We could use this to develop direct therapeutics," she said at the American Association for the Advancement of Science conference in February. But that will be impossible, she continued, without knowing what people would accept first.

George Church, a geneticist at Harvard University whose lab has been developing CRISPR applications, said the technology had become far more precise than it was just a few short years ago. He said more people would be open to gene editing if they knew it was safe. "Precaution doesn't mean a moratorium," he said at the Boston conference.

Scientists will have to be fully committed to participating in a dialogue with the public to reach more people. They're up against pop culture that has portrayed lab-made humans as something to be feared, in the form of movies and TV shows, such as one recently announced where Jennifer Lopez fights possible bioterrorism made possible with CRISPR.

And they face regulatory and legal hurdles in editing human embryos in countries like the US, which is grappling with the influence of of anti-abortion ideology (which has also shaped stem cell research), not to mention major corporations, which see billions in profit to be made and have their own agendas.

"We trust our ancestry more than we trust our computational models," Church quipped.

There's a lot of work to be done if we want the public to be actual stakeholders in using CRISPR technology. If we're not careful, the dialogue could go the way of climate change or stem cell research, which continue to be widely misunderstood.

But if we're able to foster an educated dialogue, that work could pave the way for a whole new scientific process that puts people first. And that could impact society just as much as the CRISPR technology itself.

DNA IDK is a column about taking ownership of our genes.