Hold the gene splicing, please

Nicholas Wade, the British-American science writer, reports that scientists do not feel confident enough in their wisdom or skills to engage in permanent modifications of the human genome by means of new genetic technologies. This must be the first time in recent memory that scientists have not claimed triumphant infallibility.

A group of leading biologists on Thursday called for a worldwide moratorium on use of a new genome-editing technique that would alter human DNA in a way that can be inherited.

The biologists fear that the new technique is so effective and easy to use that some physicians may push ahead before its safety can be assessed. They also want the public to understand the ethical issues surrounding the technique, which could be used to cure genetic diseases, but also to enhance qualities like beauty or intelligence. The latter is a path that many ethicists believe should never be taken.

“You could exert control over human heredity with this technique, and that is why we are raising the issue,” said David Baltimore, a former president of the California Institute of Technology and a member of the group whose paper on the topic was published in the journal Science.

The concern arises from improvements in the accuracy of techniques for genomic editing:

The new genome-editing approach was invented by Jennifer A. Doudna of the University of California, Berkeley, and Emmanuelle Charpentier of Umea University in Sweden.

Their method, known by the acronym Crispr-Cas9, co-opts the natural immune system with which bacteria remember the DNA of the viruses that attack them so they are ready the next time those same invaders appear. Researchers can simply prime the defense system with a guide sequence of their choice and it will then destroy the matching DNA sequence in any genome presented to it. Dr. Doudna is the lead author of the Science article calling for control of the technique and organized the meeting at which the statement was developed.

Though highly efficient, the technique occasionally cuts the genome at unintended sites. The issue of how much mistargeting could be tolerated in a clinical setting is one that Dr. Doudna’s group wants to see thoroughly explored before any human genome is edited.

Scientists also say that replacing a defective gene with a normal one may seem entirely harmless but perhaps would not be.

Apart from uncharacteristic outbreak of humility in scientists, the article is also welcome evidence of Nicholas Wade’s return to science writing. He was in trouble with the Thought Police for his most recent book, A Troublesome Inheritance, (the hyperlink is to a review by the New York Times) which exposed the public to what we know for certain about the genetic basis of human races, and for speculations – always dangerous – on what those racial  characteristics might mean. The book itself is a must read for all people who wish to be informed, and may be bought here.

Thus while we might soon expect hangover-free wines, the possibility of stupidity-free humans must, alas, await further developments.

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