This Scientist Says Your Fears About The Coming Genetic Engineering Revolution Are Overblown

Alarm about super-healthy children seems like "a first world problem."

This week, hundreds of scientists from around the world are descending on Washington D.C. for a three-day summit on a new technique that has spurred a major genetic revolution.

Thanks to a gene-editing technique called CRISPR-Cas9, it is now not only possible, but easy, cheap and fast, to change, delete or replace genes in any plant or animal, including people. The range of hypothetical ways CRISPR could change our lives is staggering -- from creating wheat that is invulnerable to mildew to curing the world’s most intractable diseases. Anything that has DNA, which is to say, every living thing on earth, can now be more easily manipulated than ever before.

When it comes to the human genome, especially, this raises fears as much as it raises hopes. You don’t have to dip that deeply into science fiction literature to imagine how badly it might go when scientists begin editing human DNA. Scientists are not immune to these fears, either. One of the scientists who developed the technique told the New Yorker’s Michael Specter that she recently dreamt about Adolf Hitler, who told her, "I want to understand the uses and implications of this amazing technology."

George Church, a professor of genetics at Harvard Medical School and Massachusetts Institute of Technology, says he thinks such fears are healthy. Concerns about how the use of CRISPR could go wrong are partly what spurred the conference, which is organized jointly by the US National Academy of Sciences, the U.S. National Academy of Medicine, the Chinese Academy of Sciences and the U.K. Royal Society, and will focus on the ethics of editing human DNA.

Church is presenting at the conference, on a panel on human germ line modification -- a technique that involves actively changing the genes that are passed on to future generations and is currently banned in more than 40 countries. (While privately-funded editing of the human genome is currently legal in the United States, this summer, Congress moved to block the Food and Drug Administration from spending money on projects related to human germ line modification.)

On Monday, The Huffington Post caught up with Church ahead of the conference to talk about the controversial technology, what he’d like to see come out of the conference, and what his biggest hopes and fears are for CRISPR’s future, and our own. 

If you had to tell someone -- an English major, say -- in one sentence, why they should care about CRISPR, what would you say? 

CRISPR is the iconic culmination of a variety of technology breakthroughs allowing us to read and write genomes on any living thing. The possibilities are only limited by our imagination. 

You are now on your way to a big conference looking at the ethics of editing DNA with CRISPR. What are you anticipating from the conference? 

One-hundred percent consensus seems unlikely, considering how diverse the laws and guidelines have been since Oviedo in 1998 [Editorial note: In 1997, The Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Dignity of the Human Being with regard to the Application of Biology and Medicine was signed in Oviedo, Spain.], but hopefully many of us at the meeting might agree on what medical conditions would be suitable for germ line changes and specific guidelines for levels of safety and efficacy would be needed for FDA approval. 

What have the guidelines since Oviedo been like? 

Diverse views and generally vague about conditions for changing the guidelines. About 20 percent of countries banned germ line modification in the clinic.

What are your best and worst case scenarios for what will come out of the meeting?

Best case would be good representation of a diverse set of views and very specific guidelines. Worst cases are hard since it can always get worse.  A medium bad case might be proposing a path to approval which is vague or obfuscatory.

You conducted the first studies demonstrating that CRISPR could be used to edit human cells. Given that, what do you see as the most pressing ethical concerns related to the use of CRISPR on human cells?

The biggest policy decisions probably have to do with CRISPR gene drives, which are technically not done in human cells, but disease vectors in the wild like mosquito vectors of Malaria or mouse vectors of Lyme disease. [Editorial note: a gene drive is a method of gene-editing that allows a particular gene to spread through an entire population in a given area. Researchers are now using gene drives to alter mosquitoes that spread malaria -- previously, without a gene drive, the malaria-free mosquitoes would be quickly swallowed up by the non-engineered mosquitos. With CRISPR gene drives, the mutant mosquitoes will triumph.]

What are the bad scenarios you can see unfolding if good policy decisions are not made well? 

Germ line changes look to be slow, personal and expensive, while entire species can be impacted by a poorly designed gene drive constructed on a shoestring budget.

In the New Yorker story on CRISPR, Jennifer Doudna tells Michael Specter that she had a dream about Hitler. It seems natural that any time you talk about editing the human genome, people will worry about eugenics. Do you worry about things like scientists using CRISPR to develop so-called designer babies? 

Yes. I worry about most aspects of new technologies -- and encourage others to do so as well. I think that the old eugenics was about governments sterilizing citizens without their permission. The decision of parents and physicians to use FDA approved medical technologies to help improve the overall health risks of the family strikes me as very different. The term "designer babies" seems to be dismissive of detailed and nuanced discussion in a way analogous to "test tube babies" was in the 1970s referring to IVF, which has since then been approved and used to help millions of couples.

So do you think that fears that CRISPR could be used to create, for example, super intelligent babies that have a leg up on getting into Harvard Business School (as one bioethicist suggested to me) are really overblown and unrealistic? And are they overblown because the technology isn't there, or because it seems unrealistic that scientists would actually do that work?

I think worrying about such fears is healthy. The tech is basically ready and we already see huge impact on problem solving in animal models. But we can note that we already create children that have "a leg up" via mate choice, pre/post-natal gene testing, nutrition, early education, caffeine and other mind drugs, etc. If the problem is "a leg up" then we could  ban any of those. Some of them are heritable. We already have gene therapies which work on the nervous system of children to prevent mental disablement or reverse blindness. The fear of super healthy children seems like "a first world problem." If the issue is health disparity, rich/poor, then we should fund bringing the cost down as we have for cell phones and DNA sequencing.

Do you think the use of CRISPR should be regulated in some way? And if so, what might those regulations look like?

It should be regulated in a manner very similar to other therapies, via the FDA, focusing on safety and efficacy relative to alternatives available today.  The criteria for approval both for clinical trials as well as eventual broad use should be no weaker nor more expedited than current drug testing which can take a decade or more. 

If you look at the full body of all the work taking place around the world with CRISPR right now, what do you think is most exciting and most promising? 

Particularly exciting applications include the use of CRISPR for: 1) gene drive to eliminate Malaria and Lyme disease, 2) improvement of crops to improve health (like golden rice),  3) engineering pigs as organ donors for millions of patients in need of transplants.  

How has CRISPR changed your approach to your work?

I have been developing methods for reading, writing and arithmetic on DNA since the mid-1970s. CRISPR improves the cost of editing about 1,000-fold. It needs to be used in conjunction with ways to read DNA (which has improved one million-fold in the same period of time) as well as ways to functionally test complex biological systems.

This interview has been edited for clarity.

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Lila Shapiro covers the science fiction of science, the imaginative ways scientists are trying to solve the world’s hardest problems. Tips? Email