Robert Sanders, media relations officer for the University of California, Berkeley, contributed this article to Live Science's Expert Voices: Op-Ed & Insights.
What if correcting the sickle cell mutation in the human genome made people more susceptible to malaria? Or if inserting a gene to make humans resistant to HIV infection also depressed our immune system — permanently?
These are the potential dangers of making changes to the human genome that can be passed down to future generations, and an issue that has become more urgent with the advent of CRISPR-Ca9, an easy-to-use and cheap way to precisely edit animal and plant genomes.
The ethical and societal issues surrounding heritable gene editing recently drew more than 400 scientists, bioethicists and historians of science from 20 countries to Washington, D.C., for the International Summit on Human Gene Editing, hosted by the National Academy of Sciences, the National Academy of Medicine, the Chinese Academy of Sciences, and The Royal Society of the United Kingdom.
Among the attendees was Jennifer Doudna, a professor of molecular and cell biology at the University of California, Berkeley, and one of the inventors of CRISPR-Cas9 gene editing. A prime mover behind the meeting, Doudna has expressed her opinion that the research community should temporarily halt all gene editing in viable embryos, as well as in sperm and eggs, until scientists, doctors and the public fully know the implications of a change that will affect not only that one person, but all descendants of that person, in perpetuity.
"It is very important to consider the unintended genetic consequences of making an intended change, because there are all sorts of genetic interactions that occur in cells during cellular development — especially in humans, but also other organisms," Doudna said. "I think just getting a handle on how a desired change impacts the function and development of an organism or embryo is going to be a big part of this, and it could be decades of work. But this needs to be discussed in the context of this meeting and future meetings so that we can really determine the path forward for gene editing." In the attached video, Doudna explains the issues surrounding germline gene editing, that is, edits in reproductive cells, and why she feels the time is not yet ripe for making heritable alterations in humans.
Follow all of the Expert Voices issues and debates — and become part of the discussion — on Facebook, Twitter and Google+. The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the publisher. This version of the article was originally published on Live Science .