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Video review: TED - Editing Our Evolution

2 October 2017
Appeared in BioNews 920

TED (Technology, Education and Design) are renowned for their short, engaging talks which aim to showcase powerful ideas and start a world conversation. Unsurprisingly, the recent explosion of interest surrounding the use of CRISPR/Cas9 genome editing technology has not gone unnoticed by the TED community and a plethora of talks have been created to publicise its potential.

The latest genome editing offering in the TED world comes from Dr Helen O'Neill, a molecular geneticist at University College London, UK. Dr O'Neill presented her talk 'Editing our Evolution: CRISPR/Cas9' at the 2017 TEDx Goodenough College event, which was themed '[R]evolution' and aimed to 'explore how and why the world and its inhabitants are constantly changing'. Dr O'Neill successfully delivers her talk in what I have come to know and love as the 'TED style'; she is passionate, she is concise, she uses grand statements - 'We are in the middle of a genetic revolution … one that will change everything' - and she weaves in humour to engage the audience. Indeed, her punchy statement 'when we mate, we mutate' is worthy of being printed on a t-shirt.

Dr O'Neill takes the audience through a history of how we as humans have tried to understand and manipulate our genetics, from selective breeding in agriculture from the 1700s to the present day. She describes how mutations can occur and the limitations that healthcare providers face when trying to treat disease. The thought-provoking observation that pharmaceutical products are almost exclusively tested on Caucasian males, which ignores the genetic diversity of gender and race, elegantly demonstrates that we could be doing better. It is at this point that Dr O'Neill introduces genome editing as a way of to develop personalised medical treatment based on our individual genetic make-up.

Dr O'Neill asserts that 'CRISPR is the smartphone of science'; rather than simply providing care for patients with a genetic disease, we could use this 'smartphone' to update our own technology, i.e. edit our genetic information, and potentially cure certain genetic illnesses. She acknowledges that this application will most likely be limited to the treatment of monogenic diseases, but challenges the audience to sit up and take notice because there are between 5,000-8,000 single-gene disorders that could potentially be treated.

But both the beauty and the downfall of TED talks lie in their short duration; any talk longer than 18 minutes is thought to be at risk of creating 'cognitive backlog' where audience members start to retain less of the presented material. However, in order for the talk to reach some educational depth the speaker needs to restrict the number of ideas that are presented to the audience. Dr O'Neill's talk struggles slightly with the latter, she breaks down the field of genetics to its very foundation, ensuring that all audience members can follow her narrative but as a result she only just manages to scratch the surface of what genome editing is and how it could be of benefit.

Dr O'Neill informs the audience that CRISPR could potentially be used in two ways; one, to treat individuals with a genetic illness and two, to prevent the illness from developing in the first place, however, the methodology for the latter does not receive any further attention. Yet I would argue that the potential to edit the germline and prevent the transmission of a heritable disease is worthy of discussion at a R[evolution] themed event.

An examination of the ethical dilemmas associated with genome editing's potential clinical application is also restricted by time limitations. Dr O'Neill acknowledges that 'ethics is a big problem' in the world of genome editing, however, she succinctly declares that the therapies we have at the moment are not good enough, and rather than debate the pros and cons, she urges the audience to 'move beyond caution to curiosity'.

So Dr O'Neill's talk is executed in an extremely competent, 'TED-like' manner, but the focus on breadth rather than depth of content somewhat limits its widespread appeal. Lay audience members will most likely enjoy Dr O'Neill's playful presentation style and find this talk a useful introduction to the field of genomic medicine, however, individuals that already have some familiarity with genome editing technologies may prefer to explore some of the other genome editing TED talks that are available.

From Dr O'Neill's talk you start to get a sense of the excitement building around CRISPR/Cas9 technology. However, like all good talks, it leaves you wanting more. The talk sadly ends just when the brilliant potential of genome editing starts edging into your awareness; just when you start to realise that maybe Dr O'Neill is right - we are in middle of a genetic revolution.

Dr Helen O'Neill will be chairing the session 'Creating Life in the Lab: In Vitro Gametogenesis (IVG) and Synthetic Human Entities With Embryo-Like Features (SHEEFs)', at the Progress Educational Trust's upcoming public conference 'Crossing Frontiers: Moving the Boundaries of Human Reproduction'.

The conference is taking place in London on Friday 8 December 2017. Full details - including sessions, speakers and how to book your place - can be found here.

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