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TV Review: Panorama – Medicine's Big Breakthrough: Editing Your Genes

13 June 2016
Appeared in BioNews 855

'The joy of editing is that DNA essentially becomes a drug target. We can approach the human genome and change it essentially at will.'

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.

Medicine's Big Breakthrough: Editing Your Genes
BBC One |  6 June 2016
10 April 2017 - by Sean Byrne 
A recent Wall Street Journal article, 'DIY Gene Editing: Fast, Cheap — and Worrisome', describes the Saturday afternoon of teenager, Kian Sadeghi, as he learns to use CRISPR/Cas9 at the Genspace Community Lab in Brooklyn, New York. Like many news articles, the main angle of the article is that new science and technology present a problem...
12 September 2016 - by Professor Vardit Ravitsky, Professor Bartha Knoppers, Professor Timothy Caulfield, Professor Rosario Isasi, Erika Kleiderman, and Professor Michael Rudnicki 
Gene editing, in particular CRISPR/Cas9 technology, is sweeping the scientific world and has been receiving ample attention from policymakers worldwide. Policy statements and academic papers regarding responsible ways of moving forward with gene editing have already been published...
30 August 2016 - by Julian Hitchcock 
GMO Sapiens is just the annoying grit in the machine that the genome editing debate needs, but readers deserve clearer lines between science, speculation and opinion...
1 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...
25 July 2016 - by Rachel Siden 
Chinese scientists plan to start the first-ever clinical trial of CRISPR genome-editing technology in humans – on patients with lung cancer – this August...
25 April 2016 - by Dr Özge Özkaya 
Scientists have fine tuned the genome-editing tool CRISPR so that it can now edit a single 'letter' of DNA...
11 April 2016 - by James Brooks 
Scientists testing whether the CRISPR genome-editing technique could effectively kill HIV in infected cells have found that, while the approach works in most cases, it can also cement the virus's presence...
22 February 2016 - by Sarah Pritchard 
Professor Matthew Cobb investigates some of the implications of the groundbreaking CRISPR genome-editing technology in this BBC Radio 4 documentary...
22 February 2016 - by BioNews 
This video documents a debate about genome editing, produced by the Progress Educational Trust as part of the Festival of Genomics...
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