Written by Robert Ranisch, Institute for Ethics and History of Medicine, University of Tuebingen
Newly discovered tools for the targeted editing of the genome have been generating talk of a revolution in gene technology for the last five years. The CRISPR/Cas9-method draws most of the attention by enabling a more simple and precise, cheaper and quicker modification of genes in a hitherto unknown measure. Since these so-called molecular scissors can be set to work in just about all organisms, hardly a week goes by without headlines regarding the latest scientific research: Genome editing could keep vegetables looking fresh, eliminate malaria from disease-carrying mosquitoes, replace antibiotics or bring mammoths back to life.
Naturally, the greatest hopes are put into its potential for various medical applications. Despite the media hype, there are no ready-to-use CRISPR gene therapies. However, the first clinical studies are under way in China and have been approved in the USA. Future therapy methods might allow eradicating hereditary illnesses, conquering cancer, or even cure HIV/AIDS. Just this May, results from experiments on mice gave reason to hope for this. In a similar vein, germline intervention is being reconsidered as a realistic option now, although it had long been considered taboo because of how its (side)effects are passed down the generations.
The developmental history of genome editing reveals itself as a recalibration of ethical standards in research. Two years ago, the first-time use of these new tools on (non-viable) embryos in China led to a solid scandal; in retrospect, it is not clear anymore whether the outrage was triggered by ethical concerns or by the circumstance that this (perceived) taboo was broken by China of all countries.
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.