Subscribe to the BioNews newsletter for free

Login
Advanced Search

Search for
BioNews

Like the Progress Educational Trust on Facebook


The Fertility Show


 

Video Review: Talking Biopolitics – A conversation with Paul Knoepfler and Nathaniel Comfort

01 February 2016

By Dr Rebecca Dimond

Research Fellow, School of Social Sciences, Cardiff University

Appeared in BioNews 837

Talking Biopolitics

Produced by Center for Genetics and Society

Featuring Paul Knoepfler and Nathaniel Comfort

'Talking Biopolitics', produced by the Centre for Genetics and Society, featuring Professors George Annas and Lisa Ikemoto


On 26 January 2016, the Center for Genetics and Society hosted an online discussion on 'Exploring heritable genetic modification: the promise and perils of altering future humans'. Paul Knoepfler, author of the 2015 book 'GMO Sapiens: The Life-Changing Science of Designer Babies', was interviewed by science historian Nathaniel Comfort.

I was looking forward to this webinar. The discussion was timely, following the passing of legislation on mitochondrial donation in the UK in 2015, and amid current debates about genome-editing technologies, such as CRISPR. Introducing the conversation, Marcy Darnovsky told the audience that genetic modification is 'now with us', a thought she described as both lively and sobering. Knoepfler's views about these developments are well known – during the UK mitochondrial donation debates, he contributed evidence to the scientific reviews, was mentioned at the House of Commons and House of Lords and hosts his own popular blog. He recently tweeted that he was 'excited about genetic modification' but was also cautious about 'talk of clinic use'.

Much of the conversation focused on the risks and benefits of gene editing. Knoepfler argued that genetic modification is an experiment and, in science, experiments often don't work. CRISPR can have unintended consequences, for example by creating a change in the wrong place or making the wrong edit. Even though we might be excited by CRISPR, he recognises 'it is not perfect' and it is too soon to know the risks.

Knoepfler added that although the safest application would be for single-gene disorders, the most exciting potential of CRISPR is its ability to target multiple genes. For example, he said that intelligence might be linked to hundreds of genes, yet this would not necessarily put scientists off from taking it on as a potential goal. Knoepfler mentions the ease with which individuals can use the technology, even in their own garages or kitchens, and CRISPR kits are already available online. While biohacking is fascinating, at a genetic level could be 'rather scary', said Knoepfler. He also mentioned that the US government has secret task forces and is taking biological warfare seriously.

Then followed a discussion around a second kind of risk – what happens if it works 'too well'? Knoepfler mentioned that one possible outcome would be to successfully change ourselves, for example by creating 'superior bones' in those who would have been born with bone disease. This could create a desire to use the technology in society at large. Moreover, a trend towards genetic modification as enhancement could create an enhanced social class, leading to social stratification and further inequality.

This led on to a discussion about eugenics, which Comfort described as 'the elephant in the room'. Knoepfler said that this resonated with him because his family are Jewish and came from Austria and Hungary.  But he said that the 'new' eugenics has been described as a 'kinder, gentler, more positive, liberal eugenics'. Comfort also acknowledged that it is now market driven, being more about individual choice than state control. Knoepfler agreed, but reminded us to consider what choice means. Choice lies with parents, and parents make choices on behalf of their children all the time. Nevertheless, he maintained that changing a genome by design is very different, and the individuals created through this technology are unable to exercise any choice.

What was enjoyable about this conversation was that it did not just focus on the promise and perils. We heard about Knoepfler's own position as a scientist and technophile whose own lab uses CRISPR. But, as a parent, he feels that premature use of CRISPR in humans could have negative consequences for society. We also heard about his inspiration for writing the book. He knew that gene editing was a hot topic yet little had been written about it at the time. Likewise, he realised that, although the public were very visible in discussions about genetically modified food, they seemed to know less, and care little, about the implications for human modification. Referring to the recent Washington summit on genome editing (see BioNews 831), he said that he was disappointed with the level of public involvement. His aim in writing the book was to help the public understand and stimulate them into becoming more actively involved – to get people thinking and arguing. This, he said, is why he chose such a provocative book title.

In response to one viewer who asked whether even talking about this topic could encourage a sense of genetic fundamentalism – the prioritising of genetic explanations above all other aspects of social life. Knoepfler said that discussions can have a positive impact, but agreed they can also become a 'self-fulfilling prophecy'. He pointed to all the 'CRISPRed' animals from last year – including pet micro-pigs – which may have made us collectively more comfortable. 'I wonder if we are getting too comfortable,' he pondered.

Thoughout this discussion, reference was made to the importance of continuing the conversation about gene editing. This online debate, and Knoepfler's accessible book, offer important contributions to this end.

SOURCES & REFERENCES

RELATED ARTICLES FROM THE BIONEWS ARCHIVE

01 August 2016 - by Anneesa Amjad 
A survey has found that a majority of adults in the USA are worried about the potential use of genome-editing technologies to give children a reduced risk of disease...
16 May 2016 - by Anneesa Amjad 
An international body representing stem cell scientists has included human genome editing in its updated guidance on the manipulation of stem cells and their use in therapy...
08 February 2016 - by Julian Hitchcock 
Last week the front pages and airwaves filled with well-written, balanced articles about a significant development in UK embryo research. There was, however, something missing: a story...

25 January 2016 - by Antony Blackburn-Starza 
We report from the fourth session of annual conference of the Progress Educational Trust, titled 'Germline in the Sand: The Ethics and Law of Engineering the Embryo', which discussed the ethics of human embryo genome editing...
18 January 2016 - by Dr Jess Buxton 
We report from the third session of the annual conference of the Progress Educational Trust, titled 'Genome Editing and CRISPR: The Science of Engineering the Embryo', which discussed these new technologies and how they might be used in the future...
11 January 2016 - by Jenny Sharpe 
Scientists in the USA have shown that the genome-editing technique CRISPR can improve muscle function in a mouse model of Duchenne muscular dystrophy...
07 December 2015 - by Dr Jane Currie 
An international summit has agreed conditions under which human genome editing, using techniques like CRISPR, should proceed...
26 October 2015 - by Isobel Steer 
Scientists in China have used the gene-editing technique CRISPR/Cas9 to create dogs with increased muscle mass...

HAVE YOUR SAY
Be the first to have your say.

You need to or  to add comments.

By posting a comment you agree to abide by the BioNews terms and conditions


- click here to enquire about using this story.

Published by the Progress Educational Trust

CROSSING FRONTIERS

Moving the Boundaries of Human Reproduction

Public Conference
London
8 December 2017

Speakers include

Professor Azim Surani

Professor Magdalena Zernicka-Goetz

Professor Robin Lovell-Badge

Sally Cheshire

Professor Guido Pennings

Katherine Littler

Professor Allan Pacey

Dr Sue Avery

Professor Richard Anderson

Dr Elizabeth Garner

Dr Jacques Cohen

Dr Anna Smajdor

Dr Andy Greenfield

Vivienne Parry

Dr Helen O'Neill

Dr César Palacios-González

Philippa Taylor

Fiona Fox

Sarah Norcross


BOOK HERE

Good Fundraising Code

Become a Friend of PET HERE and give the Progress Educational Trust a regular donation