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Positive public support for life-saving genetic intervention


A chromosome

A survey conducted by researchers from the Centre for Eye Research Australia, University of Melbourne, Menzies Institute for Medical Research, University of Tasmania and Monash University has found that approximately two out of three people support an intervention known as ‘gene editing’ to cure life-threatening or debilitating diseases.

Gene editing uses a naturally occurring phenomenon known as CRISPR/Cas to effectively cut and paste DNA inside living cells. This technique, which is still in experimental stages, could enable researchers to edit a person’s genetic code, deleting faulty genes and potentially replacing them with new correct versions, thereby preventing an individual from developing deadly or debilitating diseases.

Led by Assoc. Prof Alex Hewitt and Assoc. Prof Alice Pébay, the results of the survey were published this week in Cell Stem Cell. Data were collected from over 12,000 people across 185 countries and the results showed that 59% of respondents agreed with the use of gene editing to cure life-threatening or debilitating disease, with a only about 10% disagreeing with this application.

Gene editing could also be used for non-health related purposes, for instance to genetically alter an individual’s characteristics such as physical appearance or athletic ability. Under a third of respondents agreed with using the technology for this purpose, with 30% being unsure or neutral and 43% disagreeing.

Gene editing could be undertaken in adults or children, but it could also possible to genetically edit embryos during IVF. Editing the genetic code of an embryo would mean the changes would be passed on to the next generation. “Some scientists have raised ethical concerns with embryonic editing, because they believe it is medically unnecessary and raises the prospect of ‘designer babies’,” explained Assoc. Prof Pébay. “Interestingly, our survey respondents did not show a marked difference in their levels of support for editing an adult or child versus an embryo.”

The survey was conducted via social media and attracted participants from all over the world. The average age of the respondents was young, at 24 years old. Previous public opinion surveys that have included an older demographic have shown less support for gene editing, suggesting that younger people may be more open-minded when it comes to embracing emerging scientific technologies.

“We believe that scientists, regulators and the public must to be involved in this conversation. The technology is developing faster than we could have imagined. It’s not a matter of if these things will be possible, but when,” said Assoc. Prof Hewitt. “The application of this technology will affect all of humankind. The public needs to understand the risks and potential benefits of different applications of gene editing in a way that allows everyone to make an informed opinion. Our study was an initial attempt to engage people globally on what is shaping up as this century’s most exciting development in biology.”