Gene editing breakthrough: Perspective from a geneticist and a pastor

A test eliminated a disease-causing gene, but some fear the technique could lead to designer babies.

ST. PETE — People have been sharing a New York Times story all over social media: For the first time, scientists in the US have successfully changed a disease-causing gene inside a human embryo.

It was just a basic test. But the technique could one day stop genetic diseases and even birth defects.

The possibilities are incredible but where do you draw the line?

Could the same technique be used to change genes so babies are smarter, taller, and have the exact eye colors you want?

 We spoke with a geneticist and a pastor to get perspective on the debate.

Scientists say diseases like breast and ovarian cancer, Huntington's disease and more could be cured before birth - never to be passed on again.

Before birth - during fertilization - doctors use a natural enzyme to cut out the bad gene and replace it with the good one.

“The possibilities are enormous,” said Johns Hopkins All Children’s Hospital geneticist Dr. Maxine Sutcliffe.

She says this could be a new paradigm of disease prevention in humans.

But there are two big issues. Safety first.

“If you're going to cut into something. you want to make sure you don't damage something else,” Sutcliffe said.

And ethics.

“We have the potential, we have the expertise, we have the ability to keep this under control and let it work for the good of mankind as opposed to the destructive side, the manipulative side, or the wrong side,” she said.

Sutcliffe said we are decades upon decades away from being able to pick the traits for our kids -- if we ever will be -- but should we cure a disease in a fetus if we can?

“I mean who benefits from it? If it's only the wealthy that can benefit from this, then the wealthy that become healthier, the wealthy become smarter, the wealthy become better looking, whatever that is. Is that what we want as a culture?” asked Rev. Dr. Craig Nelson.

Nelson pastors the First United Methodist Church in St. Petersburg.

“There can be great benefits and people can become incredible gifts to society with all kinds of diversity that we have,” he said.

Rev. Nelson said he is alive today in part because he received a gene therapy treatment to fight his stage 4 lung cancer.

“First doctor said I had 6 months to a year to live 5 1/2 years ago,” he said.

“Where technologies can help us in eliminating pain and suffering, where it can lead to a healthier world and culture, pursue it, but you can't just say, 'Oh yeah it can do this, we're all in.'

“When there's a preference that would start permeating culture, then that leads to uniformity. That leads to stormtroopers on 'Star Wars,' you know? ... I mean, Hitler tried it, you know? And where did that get us?”

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