The recently-public discussion of gene editing has been going on for over a month now. I have been meaning to try to catch up with some of it. Tuesday’s post by Courtney Thiele got there first. This post will attempt to amplify a bit on what Courtney wrote.
As Courtney pointed out, the technology involves making selective genetic changes of interest, including, but clearly not limited to, replacing or “repairing” disease-causing mutations such as those that cause sickle-cell anemia, Huntington’s disease, or thalassemia (a set of diseases in which hemoglobin is abnormal and its oxygen-carrying capacity impaired). These are but examples. There is more than one editing tool: so-called zinc-finger nucleases, or, in the more recent reports, “clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats” (CRISPR)-Cas9.
The approach is powerful for studying genes in cell-based systems or animals, and could also be useful for designing cellular therapies using adult stem cells or induced pleuripotent stem cells, which do not involve the destruction of embryos and so avoid some of the ethical concerns with embryonic stem cell research and development. Again as Courtney pointed out, the situation gets much more troublesome if editing of human embryos or human germline changes, inheritable essentially permanently down generations, are pursued. Moral status of human embryos and the concerns related to human enhancement, and then some, come into play.
Recent rumor had it that a scientific paper was about to be published in which genes were edited in human embryos. The New York Times article Courney linked to reported that the work had indeed appeared in print.
The views, opinions and positions expressed by these authors and blogs are theirs and do not necessarily represent that of the Bioethics Research Library and Kennedy Institute of Ethics or Georgetown University.