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Science & Technology

New Human Embryo Editing Research Reignites Ethical Debate

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

This week, a U.S.-based team of researchers announced a breakthrough, they found a way to safely edit the genetic code of human embryos. Down the road, this could mean the prevention of genetic diseases like Alzheimer's, Huntington's, inherited forms of cancer. But some in the field are worried about the ethical implications. We reached out to Dr. George Daley, dean of Harvard Medical School. We asked him to explain the differing views in this debate.

GEORGE DALEY: I think that there's many, many concerns even for those indications that would eliminate a disease. We're not absolutely certain that the process itself, in the midst of eliminating a disease, might create other problems, you know, other mutations or other defects that would be a burden on the baby that would be born.

But then beyond that, even if one would accept using this advanced technology for eradicating disease, there's lots of thorny questions about using it for enhancing our traits. What if we were to engineer a baby with increased muscularity because we wanted a better athlete or enhanced memory or attentiveness or maybe eye color or skin color? I think it's these kinds of applications which may represent the tip of the slippery slope that really raise the hackles of many, especially those in the bioethics community.

CORNISH: Help us better understand your thinking about this. When you think about a future where people might want to make edits, so to speak, on embryo that - towards creating people who are taller or stronger, et cetera, what's your concern about that? I mean some people might hear that and think, great.

DALEY: Well, I'm reminded of the book by Aldous Huxley called "Brave New World" where human reproduction was highly mechanized, where people were brought forth with certain traits that advantaged them over others. This creates divisiveness in a society. It creates the haves and the have-nots. And we know there are already pressures in our society that cause this great schism. These are fundamental questions of social justice. And whenever we have a new technology that can call those issues into question, we have to go forward with prudence and thoughtfulness and caution.

CORNISH: What do you think should be in place to safeguard against the dangers you've been talking about? In terms of policy, in terms of the government stepping in, what would you like to see?

DALEY: I'm not a strong proponent of laws. I don't think laws are easily responsive to the evolving science. What we've done in the community of physicians and scientists is to establish professional standards. These have tremendous influence on the practitioners, and we hope that that's the way forward.

CORNISH: In the meantime, it should be pointed out that in this most recent experiment, the embryos were only allowed to grow a few days before they were terminated. Are there any circumstances under which you think it would be OK to use this method to make a baby and even carry it to term?

DALEY: Not yet. I want to say very strongly that I think it would be irresponsible based on the very limited scientific understanding we have today for any practitioner to carry this forth and apply it in the context of assisted reproduction. And in the meantime, as we're asking the scientific and clinical questions, we need to really come to some kind of social consensus about whether we as a community want to take this technology forward and apply it to change our very heredity. That's a bigger, thornier question.

CORNISH: Dr. George Daley is dean of the Harvard Medical School. He's helped write guidelines for the International Society of Stem Cell Research. Thank you for speaking with ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

DALEY: Thank you, Audie. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.