Gene-editing or altering DNA to achieve a desired change in the characteristics of a person yet to be born, is a technology that holds both great promise for bettering the human condition and of creating, unintentionally or otherwise, bio-monsters capable of unimaginable horror.
Molecular biologist Anjeanette Roberts points out on the Reasons to Believe blog that gene-editing has made big strides in the past six years, highlighted most notably in the recent case of a Chinese biologist who claimed to have altered successfully the genomes of three babies born of IVF processes to make them resistant to HIV. It appears his claims, however, were in error.
Even so, such developments pose huge ethical, political, technological and regulatory questions that sooner or later will have to be addressed by Congress, the courts and federal policymakers in the executive branch.
Roberts’ essential point is the crucial importance of caution. Here’s why:
“Despite our growing knowledge of the human genome, we still don’t know what the majority of our genes do. And what we do know suggests that most genes/proteins are multifunctional.
“The most recent phases of the ENCODE project are seeking to identify specific environmental conditions that are linked to particular gene-expression profiles. And sequencing into previously intractable areas of the genome continues to uncover additional genes and regulatory RNAs.
“These areas of research highlight how incomplete our understanding of our genome still is. A recent NIH news release even claims the current human reference genome is becoming obsolete!”
Roberts, whose PhD. in molecular and cell biology is from the University of Pennsylvania, has some arresting thoughts about gene-editing that should be helpful to anybody interested in such issues.
But her observations should be especially helpful for those working on Capitol Hill who may soon have to make recommendations to decision-makers on what the government’s role will be in the years ahead as gene-altering becomes more sophisticated and in wider use.
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