By Anna Everette
“In our society, we have an addiction to vertical genetic transmission. It’s called sex and having a child who looks like you”.
This was perhaps the most memorable quote from the event’s keynote speaker, Greg Simon, Director of the Biden Cancer Initiative. It also happens to highlight the most compelling reason to pursue this exciting technology.
CRISPRcon took place on August 16-17 at the UC Berkeley and was meant to encourage communication about the range of ethical and social implications surrounding the use of CRISPR in different fields, from agriculture to medicine.
Many people came to the event to share their thoughts, hopes and fears related to the use of gene editing.
Many people seemed to be unable to decide how they felt about it.
And I’m sure that many people found at least some of their views gradually changing throughout the course of the event.
Personally, I’ve been fascinated with the concept of gene editing ever since I first read about it. Although I was in middle school at the time and it was more in the realm of science fiction rather than a scientific prospect, I couldn’t stop thinking how much it could contribute towards happier, healthier lives.
But as this technology began to develop, while it was met with excitement from one group of people, there was also distrust and sometimes hostility from the other. Michael Specter, staff writer of The New Yorker and the author of Denialism: How Irrational Thinking Hinders Scientific Progress, Harms the Planet, and Threatens Our Lives, made an excellent point while participating in a discussion panel: “It’s easy to write stories that will scare the crap out of people”. Indeed, a scary story holds an undisputable allure, particularly in the case of CRISPR: if we perceive it as a genuine threat that will bring chaos, divide and discrimination then by not allowing it into our lives we get to be the heroes. And being a hero fighting for justice has never been so easy.
“Can polio vaccines give you polio? Yes, if they’re not made right”. Coming back to the keynote speech, this slide sums up how dangerous and deconstructive the “what-if” kind of thinking can get, and why we must not allow ourselves to get caught up in it.
Doubt is permanently connected to self-preservation, and it makes us cautious — which is a good thing. But it can also become a paralyzing, destructive force. Ask any person who desperately needed to make an important decision, but hesitated long enough and missed their shot — they’re likely to have at least one regret in life.
Sure enough, when we’re deciding the fate of CRISPR, we’re not deciding this for us but for our children — or possibly grandchildren — which means enormous responsibility. Which automatically means categorizing the issue under “proceed with caution”. However, moving slowly shouldn’t mean not moving at all. I believe there’s a real danger for this tech to be stuck in regulatory limbo, possibly to a point where there will no longer be an opportunity to use it — it is extremely difficult to make predictions in current climate. So let’s aim to give the next generation best possible start in life. They will have plenty of challenges ahead.
Anna is a freelance writer with a keen interest in biotechnology, follow her on twitter @annaeverette16 or email her at anna [at] endthread [dot] me.