13 June 2016
ByAppeared in BioNews 855
CRISPR – a technique to very precisely edit DNA in any target organism – has been changing the world, and its genomes, for over four years. This episode of Panorama gives an excellent summary of where this journey could lead. From changing the flavour of yoghurt, to animal welfare, to cures for genetic disease, CRISPR really does seem to live up to how it's billed here: 'the scientific breakthrough that could change the lives of everyone and everything on the planet'.
Parts of this programme are inspirational. I was moved by Jack, who has type 1 diabetes, and his immunologist father, Dr Chris Burlak, who is using CRISPR in research for a cure. I was astounded by Matt, one of 80 patients on a gene-editing trial to treat his HIV, who recounts the friends he lost to AIDS.
But perhaps the greatest surprise was not the potential applications of CRISPR, but the fact you can conduct it in your own garage. I don't know if it was terrific or terrifying to see buffalo chicken wings in a freezer alongside medical supplies, but it illustrated how simple CRISPR really is.
The interviews were brief and gave a real sense of the wide applications of CRISPR. But the strong focus on the potential benefits was also a weakness. Despite the opening voice-over warning 'medicine's big breakthrough is not without risk', I felt these risks were not properly investigated. With one exception, the researchers interviewed seemed very dismissive of any negative consequences of, or ethical concerns with, their research. The brief testimony of a single ethicist seemed to indicate that, having ticked the box for 'ethical concerns', further exploration was low on the agenda for the programme's producers.
The presenter, Fergus Walsh, gave summaries of concerns raised by 'critics', 'welfare groups', and 'the regulators', but they lacked the gravitas of the researchers' commentary. As topics touched on here included designer babies, genetically modified animals and intentional extinction of an insect species, more space for ethical debate would have been welcome.
Medicine's Big Breakthrough is highly polished and easy to understand. Walsh avoids jargon in his narration, and his interviews are wide-ranging and interesting. He is deftly supported by some impressive graphics, including 'holograms' of DNA and various anatomical models projected in the towering atrium of the Francis Crick Institute.
Over just 30 minutes Walsh has a lot of ground to cover, and he has little time to even superficially explore the ethical debate launched with CRISPR. While gene editing may have 'just been made simple', how we respond to these stunning advances is anything but.