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Americans want a say in human genome editing, survey shows

When it comes to CRISPR, our society has some important decisions to make.

Just last week, scientists reported a new first in the journal Nature: They edited heritable cells in human embryos to treat an inherited form of heart disease. The day after the research was published, a group of genetics experts published a statement calling for further debate before applications of the technology are taken any further in humans.

According to a new survey of 1,600 adults published in the journal Science today, much of the American public shares this desire for engagement in decision-making. Led by Dietram Scheufele, a professor of science communication at the University of Wisconsin – Madison, the study found that while support for gene editing applications varies, a majority of respondents think the public should be consulted before genome editing is used in humans.

Gene editing presents the potential for remarkable benefits.

“The potential to cure genetic disease and to ensure the safety of the world’s food supply in the face of climate change are​ perhaps the most exciting opportunities,” said Jennifer Doudna, a chemist at UC Berkeley who was an early pioneer of the powerful gene-editing technique CRISPR-Cas9 and was not involved in the new study.

But it also raises some serious ethical questions, especially when we turn our attention to tweaking the human genome, Scheufele said. Many people find some applications — like disease treatment — valuable, and others — like making your children more intelligent — morally shaky.

For example, scientists may eventually develop a cure for what some people don’t consider an illness — like a disability, Scheufele said. Would those who chose not to undergo genetic therapy or who couldn’t afford it then be discriminated against even more as a result?

These and other ethical concerns go beyond the bounds of science, Scheufele says, and his poll results show that the public wants to be…

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