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CRISPR Has The Potential To Improve Lives. But At What Cost?

Jan 23, 2020

CRISPR, the breakthrough method for editing genes, has the potential to improve our lives. But one of its inventors warns us scientists may be tempted to change life itself — in ways we won’t like.

Guests

Jennifer Doudna, biochemist who helped invent CRISPR technology. Professor of chemistry, biochemistry and molecular biology at the University of California, Berkeley.  (@doudna_lab)

Alta Charo, member of the WHO’s advisory committee on developing global standards for governance and over-sight of human genome editing. 2019-2020 Berggruen fellow at the Center for Advanced Study in Behavioral Sciences at Stanford University. (@CASBSStanford)

From The Reading List

Science Magazine: “Editorial: CRISPR’s unwanted anniversary” — “There are key moments in the history of every disruptive technology that can make or break its public perception and acceptance. For CRISPR-based genome editing, such a moment occurred 1 year ago—an unsettling push into an era that will test how society decides to use this revolutionary technology.

“In November 2018, at the Second International Summit on Human Genome Editing in Hong Kong, scientist He Jiankui announced that he had broken the basic medical mantra of ‘do no harm’ by using CRISPR-Cas9 to edit the genomes of two human embryos in the hope of protecting the twin girls from HIV.

“His risky and medically unnecessary work stunned the world and defied prior calls by my colleagues and me, and by the U.S. National Academies of Sciences and of Medicine, for an effective moratorium on human germline editing. It was a shocking reminder of the scientific and ethical challenges raised by this powerful technology.

“Once the details of He’s work were revealed, it became clear that although human embryo editing is relatively easy to achieve, it is difficult to do well and with responsibility for lifelong health outcomes.”

MIT Technology Review: “One of CRISPR’s inventors has called for controls on gene-editing technology” — “Regulators need to pay more attention to controlling CRISPR, the revolutionary gene-editing tool, says Jennifer Doudna.

One year on: Doudna, a University of California biochemist who helped invent CRISPR technology in 2012, wrote an editorial in Science yesterday titled “CRISPR’s unwanted anniversary.

“The anniversary is that of the announcement by a Chinese scientist, He Jiankui, that he had created gene-edited twin girls. That was a medical felony as far as Doudna is concerned, an unnecessary experiment that violated the doctor’s rule to avoid causing harm and ignored calls not to proceed.

“A moratorium? Forget about it. So how do we stop this from happening again? Since the ‘CRISPR babies’ debacle, scientists have talked about self-regulation. One idea was a moratorium: a self-imposed ban of a few years before anyone tries using the technology on the human germline again. (The germline refers to embryos, sperm, and eggs—anything that, if you edit it, will cause changes that pass down through the generations.) But that’s not going to cut it, says Doudna.”

The New York Times: “Jennifer Doudna, a Pioneer Who Helped Simplify Genome Editing” — “As a child in Hilo, one of the less touristy parts of Hawaii, Jennifer A. Doudna felt out of place. She had blond hair and blue eyes, and she was taller than the other kids, who were mostly of Polynesian and Asian descent.

“’I think to them I looked like a freak,’ she recently recalled. ‘And I felt like a freak.’

Her isolation contributed to a kind of bookishness that propelled her toward science. Her upbringing ‘toughened her up,’ said her husband, Jamie Cate. ‘She can handle a lot of pressure.’ These days, that talent is being put to the test.

“Three years ago, Dr. Doudna, a biochemist at the University of California, Berkeley, helped make one of the most monumental discoveries in biology: a relatively easy way to alter any organism’s DNA, just as a computer user can edit a word in a document.

“The discovery has turned Dr. Doudna (the first syllable rhymes with loud) into a celebrity of sorts, the recipient of numerous accolades and prizes. The so-called Crispr-Cas9 genome editing technique is already widely used in laboratory studies, and scientists hope it may one day help rewrite flawed genes in people, opening tremendous new possibilities for treating, even curing, diseases.”

The New York Times: “Chinese Scientist Who Genetically Edited Babies Gets 3 Years in Prison” — “A court in China on Monday sentenced He Jiankui, the researcher who shocked the global scientific community when he claimed that he had created the world’s first genetically edited babies, to three years in prison for carrying out ‘illegal medical practices.’

“In a surprise announcement from a trial that was closed to the public, the court in the southern city of Shenzhen found Dr. He guilty of forging approval documents from ethics review boards to recruit couples in which the man had H.I.V. and the woman did not, Xinhua, China’s official news agency, reported. Dr. He had said he was trying to prevent H.I.V. infections in newborns, but the state media on Monday said he deceived the subjects and the medical authorities alike.

“Dr. He, 35, sent the scientific world into an uproar last year when he announced at a conference in Hong Kong that he had created the world’s first genetically edited babies — twin girls. On Monday, China’s state media said his work had resulted in a third genetically edited baby, who had been previously undisclosed.”

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

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