Friday, April 22, 2016

Editing the Genome: An Event Retrospective

Museum of Science.
Genome Editing: Now We Can, Should We?
It was a complex question that greeted attendees of the Museum of Science on Tuesday evening:

Now that we can edit the genome, should we?

The evening started with thought provoking presentations given by Kevin Esvelt (MIT Media Lab) and Sam Lipson (Cambridge Public Health Dept). They introduced the CRISPR/ Cas9 genome editing technology, which was developed in 2013 by several groups including scientists in Cambridge, MA. The technology enables genome editing of any organism by a cut and paste mechanism that replaces the original DNA sequence with an engineered sequence designed by scientists. Changes to the genome can be limited to specific target cells or can be propagated across an entire species via a process called ‘gene drive’. The presenters also discussed the current environment of legislation around genome editing and the secretive nature of science, performed effectively behind closed doors.

Lively discussions and debate were the format for the second half of the evening. Scenarios in which the CRISPR system could be used to potential benefit were provided to each table. Scenarios included the use of CRISPR as:
  • a therapeutic intervention either in muscular dystrophy or in HIV sufferers.
  • a tool to alter ecosystems for example, to help endangered species (e.g. bees) by increasing the fitness of the population, to combat crop diseases, or reduce mosquito numbers.
  • a tool to generate cost efficient technologies for example, the production of biofuels using modified yeast cells.

The general consensus from audience based discussions was that genome editing could be hugely advantageous in the generation of novel technologies and therapeutic approaches. However, there is a need to ensure that scientists use genome editing responsibly to avoid potential risks to complex ecosystems through 'gene drives'. There is also need for open dialogue between scientists and the general public to ensure greater understanding of applications in which genome editing is being used and consent from the wider populace. Ultimately a system of regulation is required, but currently a consensus from scientific, public, and governmental bodies as to what that should consist of is currently lacking.
Karen Featherstone Ph.D.

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