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The implications of genome editing

Interview with Professor Bronwyn Parry, King's College London, about the ethics of genome editing.
One of the reasons that I probably spent the last 20 years on these questions is because I began actually as a geographer. Sounds very unlikely that I began as a sort of economic and cultural geographer and what I was interested in was how people, man, if you like, are beginning to engineer, fundamentally engineer nature, life. And that to me was an irresistible topic because it seemed to me when I began in the 1980’s, of course this began with the most sophisticated new kinds of barred technologies that we were getting. So in a similar way it was the ability to insert genes into organisms that had never had those genes inserted in them before, so interspecies for example.
I remember one example which I, I, I’ll never forget which was a company in California that was making glow in the dark lawn seed by inserting genes from luminescent fish, deep sea fish into lawn seed so that when we came home at night after you’ve had a few drinks you could see your driveway because it would be glowing in the dark and I just thought man that is like spooky, you know, how do you do that, what does that mean, what does that mean for the future of nature? And to me all of that has been rolling on, advancing very, very quickly, growing exponentially our ability to do that.
And along with artificial intelligence I actually think that this ability to engineer ourselves in quite profound ways which is what CRISPR offers as a technology is, is, the, the thing, the single thing. We are at a moment of absolute transformation and I genuinely believe that because we have never been able to intervene in constructing our own identities as a species in the way that we are now. So, you know, what do I think the implications of that are? Well, you know, immense! That is what I think the implications of that are.
And of course I think as some of my American friends, you know, have counselled me and which I am very aware of, of course, the issue is, when you intervene, you know, can you go back? That is the question, you know, can you go back? So the kinds of interventions that CRISPR might allow us to do, the kinds of gene editing that it will allow us to do, well we really are in, in many ways just kids in the chemistry lab, you know, oh let’s just pour a bit of this into here and see what happens.
I think we should proceed with great caution because I am not sure that we have got the first clue, to be frank with you, as to what we are playing with at this moment in time. I think we are just at an absolutely profound moment of change in terms of our ability to intervene in our own identity, in our own future, in re-writing actually what it is to be human. And there is no doubt that the political economy of all of these things, of CRISPR, of gene editing and so on is going to roll forward. There are companies, there are organizations who want to roll out this technology to people. There is a huge market for it.
So, you know, some people suggested well maybe we should have a moratorium and sort of be all for that, however, on the other hand, I don’t think, you know, that the tide is going to be held back in quite that way. I, I don’t think that is likely to happen.
So what I would say and I would say to anyone who is a student of this course, you know, if you are wondering why we are doing this course or why should you care about this stuff, it is because somebody, some folks out there in the world, really need to be abreast of these questions, they need to be alive to the implications, the social, the cultural, the ethical, the legal implications of these kinds of developments and be able to constitute and engage in really important, absolutely vital social debate about how we want these things to happen, where we want the limits to these technologies to lie, who should be able to access these technologies or not and on what terms and conditions and so on.
And I really don’t think there is probably any more vital work at this point in the 21st century than that. So that would be my recommendation to all of you.

What are the implications of the effort to engineer the human genome? Whatever they are, as Professor Bronwyn Perry states here, they are immense.

It is clear that there is great promise in this technology but precisely because it is so powerful there is also great peril.

Although many of these techniques are not yet ready for human studies, as we have seen, scientists are already making great strides in using novel genome editing techniques to cure disease.

The question is how to reap the benefits whilst minimising the risk. And at the end of this course, you are now in a position to contribute to a debate that not enough people are engaging in.

For your discussion: Bronwyn Parry believes that someone needs to be abreast of these developments – and that someone is you now. So What do you think of the issues she raises here? Where do you see this field going over the next ten years? How can we take the good aspects of genome editing, such as limiting disease, without losing sight of the risks involved?

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