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Radio Review: Newshour Extra - Editing the Human Genome

7 December 2015
Appeared in BioNews 831

Newshour Extra: Editing the Human Genome

BBC World Service, Saturday 28 November 2015

Presented by Owen Bennett Jones

'Newshour Extra: Editing the Human Genome', BBC Word Service, Saturday 28 November 2015

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.

7 November 2016 - by Annabel Slater 
Dr John Parrington thinks the ethics of genome editing should be shaped by scientifically informed public debate, and he hopes his book will provide a starting point...
11 January 2016 - by Paul Waldron 
Researchers have improved the genome-editing technique CRISPR/Cas9, reducing errors to nearly undetectable levels, according to a new study...
30 November 2015 - by Dr Silvia Camporesi and Dr Lara Marks 
It is important to engage the public in the debate about genome editing as early as possible, and in a way that is as open as possible, to make sure that all possible voices are included...
23 November 2015 - by Dr James Legg 
On 26 October this year the CRISPR/Cas patent wars truly began with the filing of European oppositions against what appears to be the first patent granted in Europe for this revolutionary gene-editing technology....
12 October 2015 - by Dr Silvia Camporesi and Dr Lara Marks 
The UNESCO International Bioethics Committee has released a statement reaffirming an earlier moratorium called by a group of US scientists on the use of CRISPR/Cas9 in human embryos. We argue that the current framing of the debate in terms of dystopic or imagined futures is too narrow and constrains the boundaries of the debate to germline applications...
21 September 2015 - by Kirsty Oswald 
Researchers from London's Francis Crick Institute are seeking permission to edit the genome of human embryos...
7 September 2015 - by Dr Katie Howe 
A consortium of medical research funders and learned societies has called for further research into the genetic modification of human cells, as well as a national debate into the ethics of such techniques...
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