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Radio Review: The Inquiry - Is Gene Editing Out of Control?

31 July 2017
Appeared in BioNews 911

The Inquiry: Is Gene Editing Out of Control?

BBC World Service, Thursday 13 Jul 2017

Presented by James Fletcher

'The Inquiry: Is Gene Editing Out of Control?', BBC Word Service, Thursday 13 Jul 2017

When I first listened to this radio programme, I was convinced that I was listening to the wrong thing: Sputnik does not fall under BioNews' usual remit. I persevered to find that, yes, this show was actually about genome editing and not – much to my relief – on the Soviet satellites (on which I have approximately zero opinions).

Thankfully, smooth-voiced host James Fletcher was on hand to provide some context; both Sputnik and genome editing have sparked global scientific races, apparently. The launch of Sputnik in 1955 heralded the start of the space race between the Soviet Union and the USA, and now scientists are racing to edit genes in adults and in viable human embryos. A bit of a tenuous link to be honest, which led to a shaky opener.

The broadcast by BBC World Service is split into four parts, each with an assigned 'expert witness'. The first chapter tackles 'The Language of Life', aiming to elucidate exactly what DNA, genes and genome editing are. A wise place to start.

'I just think of DNA being a Word document', says Carl Zimmer, a science journalist for the New York Times. Fletcher expands the analogy to suggest that genes should be viewed as short chapters within this Word document, and genome editing as correcting a spelling mistake.

I felt that this was a very slick analogy and one that I intend to use myself in the future. The Word analogy even proves useful with the introduction of CRISPR as like 'the search and replace' function.

While Zimmer does not offer his own opinion on whether genome editing is out of control, he does illustrate the concern with a tale about one of the unnamed discoverers of CRISPR. Following her initial elation, she began to worry that she had 'unleashed a power that humanity might not be able to control and that might lead to terrible things'.

A pretty ominous end to the first part.

Part two, the cleverly named 'The Cutting and Pasting Edge', is a rather enlightening discussion, despite sprinklings of unnecessary scientific jargon. Professor Robin Lovell-Badge of the Francis Crick Institute, London, presents a fascinating depiction of how CRISPR is actually being used in research and why. This cutting edge work could have the 'potential to avoid serious genetic disease in children' by using CRISPR to 'correct a mutation in an early embryo', according to Professor Lovell-Badge.

The research is framed as being incredibly promising, suggesting that attempts to recreate it will happen globally. This leads to a discussion detailing how the regulation of embryo research varies internationally, which is a significant point when considering whether genome editing has got out of hand, or if it will do so in the future.

Part three, 'Unknown Unknowns', sees the arrival of Dr Marcy Darnovsky of the Centre for Genetics and Society, a non-profit organisation in California.

'What used to be seen as a science-fiction hypothetical really is an urgent social justice issue,' she warns. Dr Darnovsky has a slightly more apocalyptic view on genome editing than the previous contributors.

Here talk turns to editing the germline. This is always the most controversial issue in genome editing. It's all well and good altering your own DNA because it only affects you. But altering it when you know it's going to be passed on into future generations? Risky, to say the least. 

Fletcher and Dr Darnovsky continue by discussing the grey area between fixing genetic diseases and creating designer babies. 'Are stronger bones or better eyesight medically justified, or designer tweaks?' asks Fletcher. This opened up the programme to examining the commercial and social implications of genome editing, which I think can often get overlooked. It also led to Dr Darnovsky giving a damning but justified answer to the titular question.

The narrator rather darkly announces the arrival of the final chapter: 'The Creator'.

'Evolution has created wondrous forms most beautiful and I think it is our responsibility to understand how that is done and to see if we can do it at least as well,' says Dr Kevin Esvelt of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

I still cannot quite get over the audaciousness of this statement. Surely scientists do not have a right to create anything better than evolution, let alone have a responsibility to do so?

Dr Esvelt considered the creation of 'gene drives' which are intended to skew genetic inheritance; here cells are engineered such that they have their own CRISPR system in order to pass on altered DNA. This would guarantee that the edited genes would be passed on to future generations. Recall that this was a big no-no according to Dr Darnovsky (and myself).

By this point, my eyebrow was twitching with relative outrage at Dr Esvelt's comments, so I was exceedingly grateful when his contribution became decidedly less inflammatory. He began to raise some important moral issues surrounding genome editing concluding that: 'No one person is wise enough to make these decisions.'

Fletcher rounds off the discussion by summing up some of the ideas presented throughout. No unambiguous answer to the titular question is offered, but despite this, I myself have now formed an opinion on whether I think genome editing is out of control currently (it's a no).

I've already complained about the bizarre Sputnik introduction, but I have a few other bones to pick. It’s a seemingly minor point, but the unnecessarily menacing music peppered throughout was very distracting. It was straight out of Scooby Doo and I am fairly certain this was not the desired effect.

Overall, the show was illuminating and informative and does very well to convey the extraordinary power of the technology. The diversity of the panel enabled them to address a comprehensive range of thought-provoking topics – if not opinions.

In fact all the guests agreed that (spoiler alert!) genome editing is either out of control, or it could be if caution is not exercised. Although this rings true for me, I am going to play Devil's advocate. Why not include the voice of someone who completely disagreed? The programme was an inoffensive listen and the panel's conclusions justifiable, if not exciting.

By including radically different voices it would have been raised to the provocative, but engrossing, and would have served to reignite my eyebrow twitch.

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