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Designer babies? No more cancer? Welcome to the exhilarating, terrifying world of DNA editing

Concordia professor Christopher Wilds examines the ethics of 'playing God'
December 2, 2015
By J. Latimer

Christopher J. Wilds, associate professor in Concordia’s Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry: "There’s the Dr. Frankenstein situation, where we’re making designer babies and playing God." | Photo courtesy of Plethron Image courtesy of Plethron (YouTube)

What if we could cure a deadly blood disorder? Or remove the BRCA breast cancer mutation from a child’s genetic code?

Both those things, and many more, are moving closer to the realm of possibility with the relatively recent discovery of a gene-editing tool called CRISPR, or "Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats."

It can alter the DNA of every organism on the planet, including humans, with precision and ease. 

The CRISPR quandary

The implications are staggering — for both medical breakthroughs and unforeseen negative outcomes. That’s why this week, international experts are meeting in Washington, D.C., to grapple with the scientific, ethical and regulatory issues associated with CRISPR at the first International Summit on Human Gene Editing.

We asked Christopher J. Wilds, an associate professor in Concordia’s Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry, to talk with us about what The New York Times Magazine dubbed "The Crispr Quandary".

Christopher Wilds: ‘We need to decide how far we can go’

What was your reaction when you heard about CRISPR?

Christopher Wilds: Well, I was quite interested. I first fell in love with nucleic acid while doing my undergraduate degree at Concordia, and then my PhD project at McGill was dealing with chemically modified DNA for therapeutic application. I’ve always been interested at the nucleic acid level. So, yeah, I thought, “Wow! What a great new technique!”

There have been other, previous nucleic acid-based therapeutic strategies, but one of the things about CRISPR is that the modifications are permanent, whereas some of these other nucleic acid therapeutic interventions are an ongoing-type process. 

What’s the quandary surrounding CRISPR?

CW: The quandary is about the moral and ethical questions that come into play. This discovery could go in so many directions. For example, we could edit out a defective gene, or maybe there’s an industrial application that would benefit society. But there’s always the worry that it could damage things like ecosystems. Then there’s the Dr. Frankenstein situation, where we’re making designer babies and playing God. That’s when, as a society, we need to decide how far we can go with gene editing.

That will be complicated and hard to enforce…

CW: Yes. Many sectors of society need to be involved with making regulatory and ethical decisions — not just scientists, but industry, politicians and community leaders. We’ve all got to come together on ethics boards, commissions and governmental regulatory bodies.

But it’ll be hard to strike the right balance. While CRISPR needs ethical boundaries, you don’t want research limitations that are too draconian because that’s where interesting discoveries come from.

Sometimes, it isn’t so straightforward where a project is going to lead. If we put too many rules on ourselves, it limits discovery. At the same time, we have to be responsible. The Summit is the first step in creating some kind of moral compass.

Follow news from the International Summit on Human Gene Editing on Twitter at #GeneEditSummit.

Find out more about Concordia’s Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry.


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