Genome editing gets a very cautious green light

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By Sebastian Moronta Blanco, Staff Writer

This week, several developments came in the complex and controversial world of genome editing.

On Tuesday, the National Academy of Sciences and the National Academy of Medicine released a 261-page report compiled by an international committee of scientists, doctors, lawyers, and ethicists from 10 countries. The report outlines the stringent conditions by which the editing of the human genome can be permissible.

The committee gave a virtual green light to researchers looking to use genome editing on somatic cells, which are not passed on to offspring. The report addresses the editing of inheritable genes with a list of conditions, some of which include being used only to prevent a serious disease, and only in the “absence of reasonable alternatives.”

The report is clear in saying that the committee does not prohibit the practice, however it advocates for extreme caution. This is a very “scientist” approach to take, and it’s one I agree with. The prospects of effectively curing some inheritable diseases is one that is too great to outright pass up. That said, the human genome is literally the most important part of our body, and needs to be explored with the most delicate of care.

The following day, the U.S. Federal Patent and Trademark office ruled on a case involving the newest and most promising form of genome editing, CRISPR/Cas9. The office ruled in favor of the Broad Institute, delivering a blow to the University of California which is often credited with inventing the technique.

This ruling will allow the scientists at the Broad Institute, a research center that works in partnership with Harvard and MIT, to continue their work using the CRISPR technique on humans, plants, and animals.

CRISPR has the scientific community eager to realize the technique’s potential, as it is described as a relatively simple and inexpensive method. It has already seen international use as last year Chinese researchers were the first to use CRISPR to edit cancer-fighting white bloods cells and reinject them into a patient suffering from metastatic lung cancer.

The country was also the first to use the technique on primates and on human embryos.

The practice of genome editing in somatic cells to cure a disease is more or less an accepted one, however it has generated a controversy over the potential editing of the genome for non-medical purposes. Many fear the possibility of people “designing” their children, selectively choosing the traits their offspring will have using genome editing.

Alta Charo, co-chair of the study committee, Sheldon B. Lubar Distinguished Chair, and Warren P. Knowles Professor of Law and Bioethics at the University of Wisconsin-Madison sees the method’s potential, while acknowledging public concerns.  “Genome editing to enhance traits or abilities beyond ordinary health raises concerns about whether the benefits can outweigh the risks, and about fairness if available only to some people.”

These are just some of the general public’s many concerns about the future of the practice. Those concerns are warranted, and the possibility that offspring could be custom-made should not be taken lightly, as it presents a real danger to society.

The ability to selectively edit DNA could create an all-new dynamic in society between those who’ve been enhanced through the practice and those who haven’t. Moreover, this would be a massive regulatory commitment, as a set of guidelines on what enhancements can and cannot be implemented would be critical to a patient’s future health and safety.

Frankly, the scientific and medical community should keep it simple, and only fix what’s wrong with us, and leave the creation of super-humans to the comic book writers.

Photo Courtesy: Thinkstock

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