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National Academy Calls for Public Input on Human Genetic Modification

Given how controversial genetically modified corn is, it's no wonder that the prospect of genetically modifying humans pushes a lot of people's buttons. But we already have gene therapies, and new technologies are making it faster, safer, and less expensive to modify the human genome in a range of ways. That has the science community and policymakers scrambling to set responsible guidelines for the use of genome editing.

In 2015, the International Summit on Human Gene Editing recommended holding off until the methods could be shown safe and effective, and until there was some public consensus about their use. Last week, the National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine released recommendations that suggested at least some of those criteria had been met.

The bottom line, according to report co-chair Richard Hynes of M.I.T., is this:

  • genome editing for research purposes is valuable;
  • somatic (non-heritable) editing should only be used for prevention or treatment of disease;
  • heritable editing requires more work to be safe and effective, but may be justified in the treatment or prevention of some diseases.

In all cases, the panel recommended public input on the appropriate uses of genome editing. But there remain enormous questions - what that public engagement should look like, how consensus might be defined or achieved, and how public opinion would translate into federal - or even international - policy.

  • Richard Hynes - Investigator at Howard Hughes Medical Institute, also Daniel K. Ludwig Professor for Cancer Research, Massachusetts Institute of Technology
  • Dietram Scheufele - John E. Ross Professor in Science Communication and Vilas Distinguished Achievement Professor, University of Wisconsin–Madison

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