Skip to main content
Should We Genetically Modify Humans?

You are listening to Health Library:

Should We Genetically Modify Humans?

Mar 20, 2015

Genetically modified plants and livestock are already a controversial reality. But what about genetically modifying humans? The technology could potentially eradicate certain diseases that run in families such as inherited cancers or debilitating Huntington’s disease. Dana Carroll, distinguished professor of biochemistry, and pioneer in the field of genomic engineering, has joined a group of 18 scientists who are calling for a ban on human genomic engineering until scientists, clinicians, and the public can agree on prudent safety and ethics measures. He discusses recent events that have sparked the current debate, and what is at stake if things aren’t handled properly. The group of scientists published their commentary in the journal Science. Read more.

Episode Transcript

Interviewer: A group of concerned scientists have raised the question: Should we be able to genetically engineer people? We'll talk about that next on The Scope.

Announcer: Examining the latest research and telling you about the latest breakthroughs. The Science and Research Show is on The Scope.

Interviewer: Scientists have called for a moratorium on genetically engineering human embryos until the safety and ethics have been worked out. I'm talking with Dr. Dana Carroll, a distinguished professor of biochemistry at the University of Utah. He and his colleagues have made their voices heard in a commentary that was just published in the journal Science. Dr. Carroll, why is this topic coming under scrutiny now?

Dr. Carroll: The CRISPR technology is very, very simple in its design and application and it's turned out to be extremely effective. More and more laboratories are now using this technology for a variety of purposes for research, even for agriculture. Because it's so easy and so many people are using it, the issues, which were sort of in the background for a number of years, have now moved to the front and amongst them is this issue of potentially engineering the human germ line.

Interviewer: One of the points under discussion right now is germ line modification. Can you explain what the germ line is and what that means?
Dr. Carroll: The thing that makes the germ line changes more serious than things you might do to somatic cells is that the changes are permanent and heritable. So if mom and dad are carrying mutations that could cause disease in their offspring, the idea is that the genome engineering would allow the correction back to what we would call the normal DNA sequence of that potential disease gene.

Interviewer: Yes, well exactly, and that's why this technology is so exciting is that we may be able to eliminate inherited diseases within a family. Correct?

Dr. Carroll: That's right.

Interviewer: So you told us about the promise of this technology, but what are people worried about? Why is this under discussion right now?

Dr. Carroll: There are a few things to be concerned about. One, from a scientific perspective is that, although I said we can make very specific targeted changes in the genome, the reagents that we are using, these nucleases, are not 100.00% specific. There may be other changes that occur, not just at the gene we're trying to target, but elsewhere in the genome. So we need to perfect the technology to a point where we can be quite confident that we aren't making things worse at the same time we're making things better.
There is some concern that because the technology is easy, that it will begin to be used for what you might call trivial purposes, like a couple trying to endow their children with what they consider favorable characteristics: blonde hair, blue eyes, athletic prowess.

Interviewer: How close are scientists to being able to do these types of experiments?

Dr. Carroll: In humans . . .

Interviewer: In humans, yes.

Dr. Carroll: This sort of manipulation has been done in a lot of different organisms, including mice and rats and pigs and cows and even monkeys. So the technology is ready to be applied to humans.

Interviewer: I think one thing that is interesting is that there is not even consensus among informed scientists. I think you're in the camp that can see a future where this technology is permissible, under the right control, but there are others who think that we shouldn't go forward with this technology at all.

Dr. Carroll: The commentary that was published in Nature basically said, the authors stated that they could never envision a situation where germ line genome modifications should be allowed or would be necessary. I think that's a little bit short-sighted. Like I said, I don't know what the best candidate genetic diseases are for this kind of genome engineering, but I'd love to hear from physicians and other biologists who are sort of closer to the human disease arena to see what they have to say about it.
The other thing is that we don't want to get into a situation where the public in general, individuals around the country and around the world, think that scientists are just trying to make monsters. We want to engage the public to see what the public thinks about it. If it turns out that there's, at this stage, close to zero public acceptance of going forward, then I think scientists should be governed by that.

Announcer: Interesting, informative, and all in the name of better health. This is The Scope Health Sciences radio.