07 December 2015
ByAppeared in BioNews 831
BBC World Service, Saturday 28 November 2015
Presented by Owen Bennett Jones
The opening sequence of 'Editing the Human Genome' hails CRISPR – a method of targeted genome editing – as 'a giant leap'. Initially this is hard to disagree with, particularly if CRISPR allows scientists to do to genes 'what you can do to a Word document: you can cut and paste until you get what you want'. However, it soon becomes clear that genome editing is not quite as easy or advanced – the ability to edit out faulty genes for breast cancer or Asperger's is not just around the corner.
The first half of the programme focuses on the background science and potential applications of CRISPR. Owen Bennett Jones does a good job of translating a complex academic lexicon into everyday language and clarifies several points for the listener. The second half includes a panel discussion on the ethical points raised by embryo screening in general, and genome editing in particular.
Each member of the panel plays their part well and defends their field, whether this is ethicist Marcy Darnovsky warning of the potential for the rich and powerful to 'upgrade their offspring', or science writer Michael Le Page separating the possible, probable and unlikely uses of genome editing.
But, for me, the panel discussion was not the most interesting part of the programme. I particularly enjoyed an interview with a CRISPR-biotech startup company, which injected enthusiasm and a real-world perspective into the programme. And later an interview with James Rushbrooke about his play Tomcat (see review in BioNews 828) provided one of the best soundbites of the whole piece: 'Are we walking blindly into a genetic trap?' he asked.
Rushbrooke also posed some of the most thought-provoking questions in the programme: Does removing something from our genome take away from what it means to be human? Does this take away from our society? Frustratingly, these questions were glossed over by the experts.
The length of this programme was its downfall. It is impossible to provide the background science, potential applications, real-world uses, legislation and ethical considerations of a genome-editing technique in less than 50 minutes. Each topic served more as an appetiser than a meaty debate, and so left me a little unsatisfied.
The show admits that it is only an introduction into a difficult and fascinating topic. While I felt the programme was a little superficial, this is easily forgiven given the length of time available. Detractors may point to the fact that the panel seemed to accept the use of pre-implantation genetic diagnosis as ethically sound, thus ignoring ethical arguments against embryo screening. This aside, the programme is a solid and balanced introduction to the ethics surrounding genome editing and gives a good insight into an exciting new technique.
The Progress Educational Trust's public conference 'From Three-Person IVF to Genome Editing: The Science and Ethics of Engineering the Embryo' is taking place in central London on Wednesday 9 December 2015. Find out more here.