John Stonestreet and David Carlson on International Panel Warns Us to Hit the Brakes on Gene Editing, but That Won’t Stop Us

A rendered image of the double-stranded helixes of several spans of Deoxy-Ribonucleic Acid (DNA). | (Photo: Pixabay/qimono)

While natural disasters are mostly, by definition, unavoidable, we can often take basic steps to mitigate damage, such as not building in flood zones or on top of major fault lines. Man-made disasters, on the other hand, are almost entirely avoidable, but quite often, we become victims of ideologies and collective pride.

For example, last week a panel of genetics experts issued a direct, stark warning against editing genes of human embryos destined for implantation. The panel, which consisted of experts from ten different countries, was jointly convened by the U.S. National Academy of Medicine, the U.S. National Academy of Sciences, and the U.K. Royal Society.

The present state of gene editing, said the panel’s report, is simply too risky, for both individual embryos and the human race as a whole. While technologies such as CRISPR are “fairly precise” in targeting and editing certain genes, recent ventures have demonstrated that “fairly precise” isn’t nearly good enough.

For instance, when researchers at the Francis Crick Institute in London used CRISPR to edit 18 human embryos., in order to study “the role of a particular gene in the earliest stages of human development,” around half of the embryos contained what they called “major unintended edits.” The phrase “major unintended edits” is a euphemism for “harmful mutations” and “genetic damage,” of the kind that could lead to birth defects or life-threatening medical problems like cancer, not to mention could permanently enter the gene pool.

Two other studies were cited in the same report. In one, researchers attempted to correct a gene mutation that causes blindness. In the other, the attempt was to prevent certain heart defects. However, researchers found that, in both experiments, a significant percentage of treated embryos suffered chromosomal damage.

One genetics expert described these failures to Nature this way: “If human embryo editing for reproductive purposes or germline editing were space flight, the new data are the equivalent of having the rocket explode at the launch pad before take-off.”

Once again, this new report focused only on the technical failures of gene editing. Once again, any discussion or even acknowledgement of the many ethical questions inherent to the very idea of gene editing were avoided.

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SOURCE: Christian Post, John Stonestreet and David Carlson