Bioethics Blogs

Human genome editing report strikes the right balance between risks and benefits

Gene therapy is growing in its capabilities, but there should be limits to its use. Shutterstock

If you recognise the words “CRISPR-mediated gene editing”, then you’ll know that our ability to alter DNA has recently become much more efficient, faster and cheaper.

This has inevitably led to serious discussions about gene therapy, which is the direct modification of someone’s DNA to rectify a genetic disorder, such as sickle cell anaemia or haemophilia. And you may also have heard of deliberate genetic enhancement, to realise a healthy person’s dreams of improving their genome.

Both of these issues have now been tackled in a comprehensive report on gene editing released today by the US National Academy of Science and National Academy of Medicine.

The message is fairly simple: relax, we’ve seen this all before, little if any harm has eventuated, and society is well placed to move forward together on this.

A definite maybe

Of all human technologies, recombinant DNA has arguably been one of the safest. There have been multiple benefits in both medicine and agriculture. And the legitimate concerns that arose when viruses were first mixed with bacterial genes, when cloning was first introduced, and when stem cells were developed, have not come to pass.

I cannot list all the benefits here, but if you have received the Hepatitis B vaccine or Australian Ian Fraser’s Gardasil vaccine, which protects against cervical cancer viruses, you have been protected from disease thanks to recombinant DNA technology.

However, you probably haven’t received somatic gene therapy, which is gene alteration directed at fixing one cell type, such as defective blood or liver cells.

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.