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National Academy of Sciences pulls misleading genome editing video

7 October 2019
Appeared in BioNews 1018

The National Academy of Sciences – an organisation partially funded by the US government – has removed a video about genome editing from the internet after it came under widespread condemnation from the academic community. The video suggested that genome editing could be used to alter human traits such as height, weight, intelligence and behaviour.

Genome editing technologies have potential utility in therapies for human inherited disease (see BioNews 997) and reproductive medicine (see BioNews 1011), but there are fears the technology could, in the future, be extended to alter inherited physical or cosmetic traits.

Although such uses are currently science-fiction, the video (now unavailable) suggested that 'it might not always be that way', according to the Daily Mail – before showing a light-hearted scene in which five everyday people chose desirable traits on a blackboard-diagram of the human body. The video implied that such technology could be used to create 'designer babies', with one man saying 'I want my child to be the best version of not just me, but him or her'.

The video gave an inaccurate impression that such technology was already available, whilst simultaneously downplaying potential downsides and ethical issues said experts. The video was 'the definition of hubris' according to Dr George Q. Daley, the dean of Harvard Medical School in Boston, Massachusetts. 'We are not there yet,' he told AP News.

While the goal of the video appears to have been well-intentioned – aimed at improving public understanding of the science behind complex issues – the approach seems to have misfired. The video even conflicts with the organisation's own ethical guidelines, prompting its removal.

A related tweet was also removed. It had a similarly casual approach: 'Dream of being stronger? Or smarter? Do you dream of having a top student or star athlete? Or a child free of inheritable #diseases? Can human #GeneEditing eventually make this and more possible? #TheScienceBehindIt Take the quiz!' The deleted tweet, according to CBS News, included emojis of bulging muscles, a brain, a professor and an athlete. The tweet was replaced by one stating the academy's actual position: genome editing should only be used to treat or prevent disease.

Dr Leigh Turner, a bioethicist at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis, criticised the organisation for dealing with sensitive issues 'in a bubbly, superficial way'. As reported by the NY Post, he said: 'I'm trying to imagine what was going on in their minds… It's kind of funny and cringe-inducing at the same time.'

The National Academy of Sciences said: 'We are concerned that content on a page about human genome editing, including a video, left the misimpression that the use of genome editing for the "enhancement" of human traits is permissible or taken lightly.'

The organisation apologised for causing 'any concern or confusion'.

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