Genetic engineering of humans has great potential, says Nobel winner

May 25, 2016

By Ian Sample

The genetic engineering of humans has great potential to help those destined to inherit serious, incurable diseases, according to one of Britain’s most prominent scientists, who says the risks and benefits should be debated by society.

The invention of powerful new genome editing tools means researchers can now make precise changes to genetic material, and so consider correcting faulty DNA in human sperm, eggs and embryos.

While the procedure may prevent children from being born with serious disorders, the practice – known as “germline therapy” – is banned in Britain and many other countries, because the genetic changes would be passed down to future generations and the risks are largely unknown.

“There is great potential in germline therapy. There are clearly diseases that you could help by editing the germline,” said Sir Venki Ramakrishnan, who won the Nobel prize in chemistry in 2009 and became president of the Royal Society in December. “This is a case of a new technology where there are significant potential benefits, but also significant ethical implications.”

In a wide-ranging interview with the Guardian, Ramakrishnan, said the risks and benefits of the procedure, which would create the first genetically modified humans if given the green light, should be thrashed out in discussions that involve people from all walks of life.

“It’s definitely a major step, there’s no getting around that. That’s why it’s important to really slow down and not rush any decisions,” he said. “What we need is a diverse and transparent group of people to really come together and get to grips with how do we go about using this tool and are there red lines. They may well decide there are red lines we shouldn’t cross.

“The concern I have is the same as with any other technology, which is that once a technology is feasible, we may well regulate it, but someone somewhere may start using it in ways we consider unethical,” he added.


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13 comments on “Genetic engineering of humans has great potential, says Nobel winner

  • As it happens I’m reading the copy of James Watson’s DNA which I gave to my daughter on her sixteenth birthday while she was doing her Biology A level; she’s now working as a Biophysics research assistant at the Sir William Dunn School of Pathology in Oxford.

    Watson’s book is a page turner.



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  • is banned in Britain and many other countries, because the genetic changes would be passed down to future generations and the risks are largely unknown.

    Which is sad. Anything to do with future generations carries risks that are largely unknown. The rule mitigates the risk by taking away the prospect of future generations



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  • SaganTheCat #5
    May 26, 2016 at 8:49 am

    is banned in Britain and many other countries, because the genetic changes would be passed down to future generations and the risks are largely unknown.

    Which is sad. Anything to do with future generations carries risks that are largely unknown. The rule mitigates the risk by taking away the prospect of future generations

    The problem is, that genes do not have only one function, so it is possible to accidentally remove some other feature along with a problem.

    For the present, I think a better option, is to abort, or decline to implant, invitro embryos which show inheritable defects when tested.



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  • @ #7

    “Germline Therapy”- technology vs. ethics (from the continued article).

    If things were left to public opinion only, would homo sapiens remain stationary, in situ?



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  • Given how medicine is advancing to preserve life in whatever state we deem “normal”, I wonder if this has stunted our natural evolution, and if someday we might need genetic engineering to evolve ourselves to cope with the other life that continues to evolve around us?



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  • Let me ask the old chestnut, should we seek to engineer out the tendency to schizophrenia?

    This is a question first asked by Professor Simon Baron Cohen to the best of my knowledge.



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  • “I can understand how a backlash happened against GM,” Ramakrishnan said. “But the solution is not to ban GM, it’s to take it out of the hands of a few corporations.” I would be interested to know what ideas he has in mind to actualize his suggestion?

    In opposition to GM crops, one frequent argument I see in the public is the idea that feeding vitamin deficient people with GM rice could easily be solved by utilizing other resources and fixing distribution roadblocks. Another anti-GM argument that appears often is the concern that the local wisdom found in the minds of indigenous farmers, about which seeds to plant based upon weather trends regional to the farm, would likely be wiped out as these farms are put out of business, and/or farmers adopt the new GM seed and forget about an oral tradition that may date back hundreds of years (an African village comes to mind, regarding planting of various beans, some drought tolerant but with low yield, others better for wetter conditions, etc.). Other complaints come from farmers who don’t like idea of becoming dependent upon a parent company for seed. The public’s general concern does not seem to support the use of GMO as food . . . .

    In the late 1970s and early 80s, politicians in the US passed the gene patent laws. They were told by “scientists” that there was a specific relationship between a protein and a gene, that a gene coded for a single protein.

    A bit of fiction, but if I had a research lab, among some projects, I would be working on what I call third degree GM organisms, or a GMO that lives in the lab (facility) and produces a product that is harvested, and the GMO never sees the day of light outside the facility, such as a GMO to produce a molecule to be used by industry, medicine, and science. For example, borrowing some genes from the ocean to make electricity by digesting sewage with a GMO that can only live with a unique food additive so it will never survive in the wild.

    In my book, a first degree GMO is grown in the wild and the human interacts with it, like eating a GM tomato, a human heart transplant from a GM pig, gene editing to cure a disease, etc. A second degree GMO is grown in the wild and the human may, or may not, interact with the GMO, like wearing leather, using a GMO building material, or Aresa Biodetection’s plants that detect landmines, growing corn for cow feed, etc. A third degree is a GMO that is kept in a facility, breed to be contained with special properties so that it can not survive in the wild, and serves a purpose like making fuel, medicine, polymers, etc. which is filtered apart from the GMO. I may later revise my system, but this is the gist of it.

    I am hesitant to accept and to support GMOs that are 1st and 2nd degree without a great deal more research and public support, but I would support 3rd degree GMOs. Remember, prior to passing the gene patent laws certain “scientists” (businessmen) were very confident that only one protein was made from a single gene, and they were all wrong.

    When I thought up an idea to use plants to detect land mines, I had imagined it based upon the idea that a culture with an oral tradition could easily pass information horizontally between adults and kids (i.g. Afghanistan) if a locally known plant (like a dandelion in the US) would turn an odd color when growing next to a land mine. Originally I was thinking of designing a benign compound that the target plant would absorb after it was sprayed over an area of concern. The plant would combine the soil’s contents and, if a land mine was too close to the roots, the compound would react and release another compound, or change shape to expose an active site, that would augment the flower’s color, and a kid would see this and know to stay away from the plant. Maybe the compound reacts in the soil and then it is absorbed by the roots to augment the flower?

    A few years later I witnessed the creation of a GMO plant, to detect land mines, and I kind of wish it was helping folks find landmines, especially if the plant is modified to be sterile and unable to reproduce in the wild. I haven’t looked recently, but to my knowledge the technology isn’t being used because people don’t want the GMO in the wild. The original nonGMO idea could still be explored, to solve the problem (detecting landmines) with chemistry, to make a benign spray designed to react with landmines and then antagonize a flowering weed’s color, if it’s possible. Just a random idea if someone wants to run with it.



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  • @OP – While the procedure may prevent children from being born with serious disorders, the practice – known as “germline therapy” – is banned in Britain and many other countries, because the genetic changes would be passed down to future generations and the risks are largely unknown.

    However – as a step along the way:-

    http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/health-36499807

    The doctor behind a groundbreaking IVF technique which prevents disabling genetic disorders from being passed on to future generations has been knighted.

    Prof Doug Turnbull, from Newcastle University, has spent 40 years researching and treating patients with mitochondrial disease.

    Parliament voted last year to allow the IVF treatment to be used.

    And recent study results showed the technique was safe.

    Prof Turnbull said he was “delighted” to receive his knighthood.

    He added: “I am privileged to work with a dedicated group of colleagues and we all work together to improve the lives of patients with mitochondrial disease.”

    Prof Turnbull, from Gosforth in Newcastle, started work as a junior doctor in 1976.

    Since then, he has focused on understanding the effects of a particular kind of genetic disease which can cause blindness, heart failure and, ultimately, death.

    He has championed mitochondrial donation, a new IVF technique involving DNA from three people, which offers women with mitochondrial disease the chance of having healthy children.

    Prof Chris Brink, vice-chancellor of Newcastle University, said Prof Turnbull was “a brilliant scientist” who had dedicated his career to understanding and treating a disease that blights the lives of families across the world.



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