Editing Human Embryos to Fix Genetic Mutations: The Good, the Bad, and the Unknown

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If you follow genetic news (and even if you don’t!), chances are you’ve heard that earlier this week, scientists in the Salk Institute, Oregon Health & Science University (OHSU) and Korea’s Institute for Basic Science announced that they had successfully corrected a genetic mutation in a human embryo with gene editing. This was big news and popped up in news feeds across social media.

Many will undoubtedly view this as an incredible advancement in science, but with every advancement in science, medicine, or technology comes the question of what kind of impact will it have.

In thinking about how to write about this post, the idea and intent was to “keep it neutral”. The thing is, though, we are not discussing Five Paint Colors to Liven Up Your Kitchen or The Top Three Cities to Host the 2032 Summer Olympics. This is not a neutral topic.

People tend to have passionate feelings about gene editing, especially as it applies to humans. Personally, as a genetic counselor, a Christian, a mother, I find myself approaching this from 100 different angles and perspectives. Some of my internal views clash with my other internal views.

The thing is though, this is not a subject to avoid either. This is one which needs to be engaged, analyzed, and debated by all sides. Why? Because regardless of your beliefs, this is happening. It’s real. Not for good or bad but for good AND bad.

First, the Good: This research, i.e., the ability to edit disease-causing variations in our genes, has the potential to be an incredible advancement in the prevention of human disease, impacting the health and lives of millions of people affected by conditions such as Huntington disease, Fragile X syndrome, and cancer.

Now, the Bad: Some people argue that, although the intent of this technology is to prevent genetic disease, science may one day go too far and eventually use gene-editing for non-disease related traits, such as increased physical strength and intelligence. Thus the potential advancement of this technology comes with obvious political, social, moral, and philosophical implications.

This article points out that Scientists have been tinkering with the DNA in humans and other living things for decades”. (Remember Dolly the sheep?) “Anytime there’s a new technology there’s a potential for misuse. We have to acknowledge that,” researcher on this project Paula Amato says in the article. “Personally I don’t feel that’s a reason not to pursue the research if you think there’s a potential benefit that outweighs that risk. And I think if you can prevent serious disease in future generations, that makes it worthwhile to pursue this.”

As with so many other topics in today’s society, this concept is not black and white. The important ones never are. There needs to be open discussions, and open minds.

Why not start with your own?

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About Author

Shannon Wieloch

Shannon Wieloch is a licensed board-certified genetic counselor at CooperGenomics. Her primary responsibility is to provide genetic counseling to CooperGenomics patients. She is also the current co-chair of the National Society of Genetic Counselors Prenatal Special Interest Group. Prior to joining CooperGenomics, Shannon worked in cardiac research at The Children's Hospital of Philadelphia and in prenatal genetic counseling at The Delaware Center for Maternal and Fetal Medicine. She received a dual B.S. in biology and psychology from The University of Pittsburgh and her M.S. in genetic counseling from Arcadia University. Her passion is to provide comprehensive genetic education to medical professionals, patients and the general public.

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