CRISPR and editing the germline in the US (part 3 of 3): public discussions and pop culture

After giving a basic explanation of the technology and some of the controversies in part 1 and offering more detail about the technology and about the possibility of designer babies in part 2; this part covers public discussion, a call for one and the suggestion that one is taking place in popular culture.

But a discussion does need to happen

In a move that is either an exquisite coincidence or has been carefully orchestrated (I vote for the latter), researchers from the University of Wisconsin-Madison have released a study about attitudes in the US to human genome editing. From an Aug. 11, 2017 University of Wisconsin-Madison news release (also on EurekAllert),

In early August 2017, an international team of scientists announced they had successfully edited the DNA of human embryos. As people process the political, moral and regulatory issues of the technology — which nudges us closer to nonfiction than science fiction — researchers at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and Temple University show the time is now to involve the American public in discussions about human genome editing.

In a study published Aug. 11 in the journal Science, the researchers assessed what people in the United States think about the uses of human genome editing and how their attitudes may drive public discussion. They found a public divided on its uses but united in the importance of moving conversations forward.

“There are several pathways we can go down with gene editing,” says UW-Madison’s Dietram Scheufele, lead author of the study and member of a National Academy of Sciences committee that compiled a report focused on human gene editing earlier this year. “Our study takes an exhaustive look at all of those possible pathways forward and asks where the public stands on each one of them.”

Compared to previous studies on public attitudes about the technology, the new study takes a more nuanced approach, examining public opinion about the use of gene editing for disease therapy versus for human enhancement, and about editing that becomes hereditary versus editing that does not.

The research team, which included Scheufele and Dominique Brossard — both professors of life sciences communication — along with Michael Xenos, professor of communication arts, first surveyed study participants about the use of editing to treat disease (therapy) versus for enhancement (creating so-called “designer babies”). While about two-thirds of respondents expressed at least some support for therapeutic editing, only one-third expressed support for using the technology for enhancement.

Diving even deeper, researchers looked into public attitudes about gene editing on specific cell types — somatic or germline — either for therapy or enhancement. Somatic cells are non-reproductive, so edits made in those cells do not affect future generations. Germline cells, however, are heritable, and changes made in these cells would be passed on to children.

Public support of therapeutic editing was high both in cells that would be inherited and those that would not, with 65 percent of respondents supporting therapy in germline cells and 64 percent supporting therapy in somatic cells. When considering enhancement editing, however, support depended more upon whether the changes would affect future generations. Only 26 percent of people surveyed supported enhancement editing in heritable germline cells and 39 percent supported enhancement of somatic cells that would not be passed on to children.

“A majority of people are saying that germline enhancement is where the technology crosses that invisible line and becomes unacceptable,” says Scheufele. “When it comes to therapy, the public is more open, and that may partly be reflective of how severe some of those genetically inherited diseases are. The potential treatments for those diseases are something the public at least is willing to consider.”

Beyond questions of support, researchers also wanted to understand what was driving public opinions. They found that two factors were related to respondents’ attitudes toward gene editing as well as their attitudes toward the public’s role in its emergence: the level of religious guidance in their lives, and factual knowledge about the technology.

Those with a high level of religious guidance in their daily lives had lower support for human genome editing than those with low religious guidance. Additionally, those with high knowledge of the technology were more supportive of it than those with less knowledge.

While respondents with high religious guidance and those with high knowledge differed on their support for the technology, both groups highly supported public engagement in its development and use. These results suggest broad agreement that the public should be involved in questions of political, regulatory and moral aspects of human genome editing.

“The public may be split along lines of religiosity or knowledge with regard to what they think about the technology and scientific community, but they are united in the idea that this is an issue that requires public involvement,” says Scheufele. “Our findings show very nicely that the public is ready for these discussions and that the time to have the discussions is now, before the science is fully ready and while we have time to carefully think through different options regarding how we want to move forward.”

Here’s a  link to and a citation for the paper,

U.S. attitudes on human genome editing by Dietram A. Scheufele, Michael A. Xenos, Emily L. Howell, Kathleen M. Rose, Dominique Brossard1, and Bruce W. Hardy. Science 11 Aug 2017: Vol. 357, Issue 6351, pp. 553-554 DOI: 10.1126/science.aan3708

This paper is behind a paywall.

A couple of final comments

Briefly, I notice that there’s no mention of the ethics of patenting this technology in the news release about the study.

Moving on, it seems surprising that the first team to engage in germline editing in the US is in Oregon; I would have expected the work to come from Massachusetts, California, or Illinois where a lot of bleeding edge medical research is performed. However, given the dearth of financial support from federal funding institutions, it seems likely that only an outsider would dare to engage i the research. Given the timing, Mitalipov’s work was already well underway before the recent about-face from the US National Academy of Sciences (Note: Kaiser’s Feb. 14, 2017 article does note that for some the recent recommendations do not represent any change).

As for discussion on issues such as editing of the germline, I’ve often noted here that popular culture (including advertising with the science fiction and other dramas laid in various media) often provides an informal forum for discussion. Joelle Renstrom in an Aug. 13, 2017 article for writes that Orphan Black (a BBC America series featuring clones) opened up a series of questions about science and ethics in the guise of a thriller about clones. She offers a précis of the first four seasons (Note: A link has been removed),

If you stopped watching a few seasons back, here’s a brief synopsis of how the mysteries wrap up. Neolution, an organization that seeks to control human evolution through genetic modification, began Project Leda, the cloning program, for two primary reasons: to see whether they could and to experiment with mutations that might allow people (i.e., themselves) to live longer. Neolution partnered with biotech companies such as Dyad, using its big pharma reach and deep pockets to harvest people’s genetic information and to conduct individual and germline (that is, genetic alterations passed down through generations) experiments, including infertility treatments that result in horrifying birth defects and body modification, such as tail-growing.

She then provides the article’s thesis (Note: Links have been removed),

Orphan Black demonstrates Carl Sagan’s warning of a time when “awesome technological powers are in the hands of a very few.” Neolutionists do whatever they want, pausing only to consider whether they’re missing an opportunity to exploit. Their hubris is straight out of Victor Frankenstein’s playbook. Frankenstein wonders whether he ought to first reanimate something “of simpler organisation” than a human, but starting small means waiting for glory. Orphan Black’s evil scientists embody this belief: if they’re going to play God, then they’ll control not just their own destinies, but the clones’ and, ultimately, all of humanity’s. Any sacrifices along the way are for the greater good—reasoning that culminates in Westmoreland’s eugenics fantasy to genetically sterilize 99 percent of the population he doesn’t enhance.

Orphan Black uses sci-fi tropes to explore real-world plausibility. Neolution shares similarities with transhumanism, the belief that humans should use science and technology to take control of their own evolution. While some transhumanists dabble in body modifications, such as microchip implants or night-vision eye drops, others seek to end suffering by curing human illness and aging. But even these goals can be seen as selfish, as access to disease-eradicating or life-extending technologies would be limited to the wealthy. Westmoreland’s goal to “sell Neolution to the 1 percent” seems frighteningly plausible—transhumanists, who statistically tend to be white, well-educated, and male, and their associated organizations raise and spend massive sums of money to help fulfill their goals. …

On Orphan Black, denial of choice is tantamount to imprisonment. That the clones have to earn autonomy underscores the need for ethics in science, especially when it comes to genetics. The show’s message here is timely given the rise of gene-editing techniques such as CRISPR. Recently, the National Academy of Sciences gave germline gene editing the green light, just one year after academy scientists from around the world argued it would be “irresponsible to proceed” without further exploring the implications. Scientists in the United Kingdom and China have already begun human genetic engineering and American scientists recently genetically engineered a human embryo for the first time. The possibility of Project Leda isn’t farfetched. Orphan Black warns us that money, power, and fear of death can corrupt both people and science. Once that happens, loss of humanity—of both the scientists and the subjects—is inevitable.

In Carl Sagan’s dark vision of the future, “people have lost the ability to set their own agendas or knowledgeably question those in authority.” This describes the plight of the clones at the outset of Orphan Black, but as the series continues, they challenge this paradigm by approaching science and scientists with skepticism, ingenuity, and grit. …

I hope there are discussions such as those Scheufele and Brossard are advocating but it might be worth considering that there is already some discussion underway, as informal as it is.


Part 1: CRISPR and editing the germline in the US (part 1 of 3): In the beginning

Part 2: CRISPR and editing the germline in the US (part 2 of 3): ‘designer babies’?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *