Wednesday, December 2, 2015

Getting a Handle on CRISPR/Cas9

One day into the International Summit on Human Gene Editing in Washington, D.C., I’m struck by how easy it is for a lay person (namely myself) to get lost in the science. That gulf in comprehension complicates the effort to earn public buy-in and trust for use of the new technology.
This summit has brought together policymakers, scientists and ethicists from China, the United Kingdom and the United States in a quite extraordinary attempt to understand and possibly assign limits to the use of emerging technologies that can be as morally troubling as they are scientifically promising. 
It was heartening to hear, early in Day 2, a call for scientists to take responsibility for helping the public understand both the profound benefits and considerable risks inherent in the new gene-editing technology.  (If “Aldous Huxley” and #BraveNewWorld are trending this week, this is why.)
The summit continues today and Thursday, and is available live via webcast.  
I’m especially looking forward to Thursday morning’s session titled “Interrogating Equity.”
What follows are a layman’s takeaways from Day 1, a webcast of which is available for viewing here
  1. Predicting outcome in a Twitter word count: Yes to treating, curing humans. No to altering humanity.
  2. When a child’s leukemia is effectively treated in a new way, there is broad public support. 
  3. Questions: When is CRISPR/Cas9 safe to use? When is it therapeutically justified? (Answer unclear as yet)
  4. To paraphrasing one presenter: Our capacity for manipulating is greater than our understanding.
  5. With gene editing, the shadow of eugenics is unmistakable & maybe unshakable.
  6. In that context, “That was then, this is now” is not a convincing argument.
  7. It took 90 minutes to hear from the first woman (Alta Charo, U of Wisconsin).
  8. The challenge of getting CRISPR/Cas9 to behave: “Off-target modifications” are at heart of concern. Translation: Beware of unintended consequences and collateral damage.
  9. Favorite moment: Physicist Jonathan Weissman of UC San Francisco likening gene editing to volume control. Weissman’s dial goes to 11. #SpinalTap @ #GeneEditSummit
  10. In helping the public understand, @pknoepfler’s blog is a good model: 
One last thought: This summit in itself is a good step on the path to social buy-in.

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