Friday, December 4, 2015

Even Gene Editors Need an Editor

During the international conference that went by the hashtag #GeneEditSummit, a message on Twitter thanked the Center for Genetics and Society for a clarification: “I know @C_G_S understands my views. But it came out sounding like the opposite.”
Funny how that happens. One might call it an off-target consequence.
Take the official statement that concluded the International Summit on Human Gene Editing in Washington, D.C. (aka #GeneEditSummit).  
You could read the statement in several ways, and that’s how it has been read. Science News reported that human gene editing was given “a green light. The Guardian agreed: “Summit rules out ban.” “No ban, no moratorium,” medical science reporter Lisa M. Krieger tweeted.
But if they’re correct, then explain the New York Times headine: “Scientists Seek a Moratorium on Editing of Human Genome.” The blogging stem-cell scientist Paul Knoepfler tweeted: “Geez. Nicholas Wade misses boat on #GeneEditSummit.” 
Perhaps the confusion is best explained by an exchange toward the end of the summit, when organizers were asked if their statement might be translated into clearer language more easily understood by the public. To which Dr. David Baltimore, principle organizer of the summit and former president of CalTech, said: “You mean it isn’t?”
See for yourself here
Baltimore deserves praise him for orchestrating an important three-day conversation that was truly international on a morally, culturally divisive issue — determining appropriate use of emergent technology capable of altering genes in a way that might cure diseases such as HIV, hepatitis-B and sickle cell anemia. Done equitably, few would argue against it. 
The technology also holds the potential to make a range of changes that could be passed on to future generations. This tends to freak people out — notably, those non-scientists whom Baltimore and his colleagues need to learn to communicate better with.
And yet the summit was a good start on the path to trust and social buy-in for such scientific research, and future public engagement planned by the National Academies of Science holds promise.
One of the first criticisms of the summit was how long it took to get a woman to the podium. One of the last concerned the marginal role of religion. That might be understandable in the context of the largely secular world of science, but to have any hope of broad public support on questions that are at least as much about values as science, that can’t persist.
It wasn’t until the final panel on the second day of the summit that religious values were broached. Speaking of his country, a Nigerian hematologist and panelist said: “We are a religious people. We like to pray.” The hall was almost churchlike in response. But one thing the tool known as CRISPR will never successfully edit out of the dialogue is religious values, and when it tries, the off-target cost could be social buy-in. 
Bringing religion into this dialogue will never be easy. Which one? Will it have to pass an evolution litmus test? Swear an oath to embryonic research? Complicated, indeed.

Good, though, that the dialogue has begun.

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