MAR 24, 2015 12:41 PM PDT

Scientists Call for Freeze on Genome-Editing Method

Designer babies? It's far from a whimsy, and now a new technology that would make it possible to alter human DNA at the germline (meaning changing traits that can be inherited) has scientists calling for caution and a freeze. The New York Times reported, "a leading group of biologists on Thursday called for a worldwide moratorium on use of a new genome-editing technique."

The technique, invented by Jennifer A. Doudna of the University of California, Berkeley, and Emmanuelle Charpentier of Umea University in Sweden, known as Crispr-Cas9, "co-opts the natural immune system in which bacteria remember the DNA of the viruses that attack them so they are ready the next time those same invaders appear," according to the NYT article. "Researchers can simply prime the defense system with a guide sequence of their choice and it will destroy the matching DNA sequence in any genome presented to it."

However, the technique is not always precise and sometimes cuts the genome incorrectly. What this would mean in a clinical setting still needs to be studied further.

With an issue that raises many ethical questions, leading researchers are asking the scientific community, both in the U.S. and abroad, to hold off on human germline modification until safety is assessed and so that the public can understand the magnitude of implications.

The NYT interviewed David Baltimore, a former president of the California Institute of Technology and a member of the group whose paper on the subject was published in the journal Science. "You could exert control over human heredity with this technique, and that is why we are raising the issue," he told the NYT.

Altering the human germline would mean making changes to DNA that would pass on to the next generation, not just diseases, but things like physical traits and intelligence. Although technology has reached the point where this can be done, there is still a question of if it should be done.
About the Author
  • Ilene Schneider is the owner of Schneider the Writer, a firm that provides communications for health care, high technology and service enterprises. Her specialties include public relations, media relations, advertising, journalistic writing, editing, grant writing and corporate creativity consulting services. Prior to starting her own business in 1985, Ilene was editor of the Cleveland edition of TV Guide, associate editor of School Product News (Penton Publishing) and senior public relations representative at Beckman Instruments, Inc. She was profiled in a book, How to Open and Operate a Home-Based Writing Business and listed in Who's Who of American Women, Who's Who in Advertising and Who's Who in Media and Communications. She was the recipient of the Women in Communications, Inc. Clarion Award in advertising. A graduate of the University of Pennsylvania, Ilene and her family have lived in Irvine, California, since 1978.
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