The following story was written by Brian Mattmiller of the Morgridge Institute for Research. It has been adapted and republished here.
Researchers from the University of Wisconsin-Madison Department of Life Sciences Communication participated in an international workshop this month on the intersection of genome editing technology and national security.
The Oct. 11-13 conference, based in Hanover, Germany, assembled a global group of bioethics and government experts to address security questions on gene editing as they relate to human health, agriculture and the potential to genetically alter species. Experts from the United States and across Europe, China and India explored ideas for harmonizing gene editing policies across national borders.
“The promise of this technology is tremendous, as are the potential pitfalls,” says Dietram Scheufele, LSC professor and conference co-organizer. “But genome editing is here to stay, not just in medicine, but also in countless applications in agriculture and food systems. The question is how to responsibly roll out various applications in a way that does not unnecessarily slow down innovation.”
The ability to quickly and precisely edit genomes, through new technologies such as CRISPR Cas9, is only a few years old but the technology is moving at remarkable speeds with applications arising in human therapeutics. A number of new clinical trials aim to take cells from a patient, such as blood cells or immune cells, edit them and transfer them back with new power to undermine diseases like cancer or sickle cell anemia.
Scheufele says the rapid development of CRISPR has also fueled speculation about potential military or other more nefarious applications. This includes using CRISPR to produce viruses that can be inhaled to create a genetic mutation in mice associated with human lung cancer.
“When assessing the security implications of genome editing, it will be particularly important to include the voices of all stakeholders,” says Dominique Brossard, professor of life sciences communication. “Risk is not only a technical concept that scientific experts can quantify.”
In her keynote speech, Brossard described how public engagement exercises have to go beyond informing and consulting audiences, and should rather co-create the knowledge society needs for emerging technologies
In recent highly publicized efforts, scientists used CRISPR to breed pigs that were free of retroviruses that could sicken people, potentially clearing a hurdle for pig-to-human organ transplants. Another project used gene editing to change the color of morning glory petals from purple to white.
“Many of the potential applications that have been flagged by some as problematic are far from being realistic scientifically,” Scheufele says. “That’s why it’s important to have conversations now, with enough time to involve relevant stakeholders.”
The U.S. National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine; the European Academies Science Advisory Council; and the German National Academy of Sciences Leopoldina were among the event sponsors.