Gene editing and eugenics

A study published last week in the journal Cell has led to speculation that a powerful new gene editing technique is about to be developed.

Gene editing has received widespread media coverage over the past few months. Most of the excitement has centred on a specific gene editing technique, the CRISPR-cas9 system. Research conducted with CRISPR-cas9 on human embryos has been highly controversial, at least partly because some people fear it will lead to gene editing being used to alter the human germline for clinical applications, and will have unpredictable effects on future generations.

Some criticisms that have been levelled at gene editing in the wake of this research overlook the fact that it is unlikely that the cas9 system will be the specific gene editing tool used for widespread clinical applications in humans. Since the first gene editing technique was described 5 years ago, there have been 4 different gene editing systems developed, with cas9 being the latest and most accurate. But by the time cas9 would be considered for clinical applications in humans, it is likely that better gene editing tools will have been developed.The recent study published in Cell provides evidence that the enzyme Cpf1 can be used to edit genes in a more precise way than cas9.

Other objections levelled at the cas9 system apply to all gene editing techniques, no matter how advanced.  For instance, many object to gene editing on the grounds that it is eugenic, or will lead to eugenics.[5]  In justifying their call for a ban on gene editing, a recent UNESCO panel said such technologies could “renew eugenics”.

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.