Poll: Most Amer­i­cans sup­port gene edit­ing for ba­bies’ health

Merced Sun-Star (Saturday) - - News - BY LAU­RAN NEER­GAARD

Most Amer­i­cans say it would be OK to use ge­need­it­ing tech­nol­ogy to cre­ate ba­bies pro­tected against a va­ri­ety of dis­eases – but a new poll shows they’d draw the line at chang­ing DNA so chil­dren are born smarter, faster or taller.

A month af­ter star­tling claims of the births of the world’s first gene-edited ba­bies in China, a poll by The Associated PressNORC Cen­ter for Pub­lic Af­fairs Re­search finds peo­ple are torn be­tween the med­i­cal prom­ise of a tech­nol­ogy pow­er­ful enough to al­ter hu­man hered­ity and con­cerns over whether it will be used eth­i­cally.

Jaron Keener, a 31-yearold ex­hibit de­signer at Pitts­burgh’s Carnegie Mu­seum of Nat­u­ral His­tory, said he’s op­posed to “rich peo­ple be­ing able to cre­ate de­signer ba­bies.”

But like the ma­jor­ity of Amer­i­cans, Keener would sup­port gene edit­ing in em­bryos to pre­vent in­cur­able dis­eases. His mothas er has lu­pus, an in­flam­ma­tory dis­ease that may have both en­vi­ron­men­tal and ge­netic trig­gers.

Lu­pus has been “a loom­ing pres­ence my en­tire life. I’ve been around some­body with a chronic ill­ness and I’ve seen the toll that has taken, not just on her life, but the life of my fam­ily,” he said.

Gene edit­ing is like a bi­o­log­i­cal cut-and-paste pro­gram, let­ting sci­en­tists snip out a sec­tion of DNA to delete, re­place or re­pair a gene. Al­ter­ing adult cells would af­fect only the pa­tient be­ing treated.

But edit­ing genes in eggs, sperm or em­bryos would al­ter the re­sult­ing child in ways that can be passed to fu­ture gen­er­a­tions – a step with such pro­found im­pli­ca­tions that in­ter­na­tional sci­ence guide­lines say it shouldn’t be tested in hu­man preg­nan­cies un­til more lab­based re­search de­ter­mines it’s safe to try.

The AP-NORC poll shows about 7 in 10 Amer­i­cans fa­vor one day us­ing gene-edit­ing tech­nol­ogy to pre­vent an in­cur­able or fa­tal dis­ease a child other­wise would in­herit, such cys­tic fi­bro­sis or Hunt­ing­ton’s dis­ease.

Roughly two-thirds of Amer­i­cans also fa­vor us­ing gene edit­ing to pre­vent a child from in­her­it­ing a non-fa­tal con­di­tion such as blind­ness, and even to re­duce the risk of dis­eases that might de­velop later in life, such as cancers.

Side ef­fects are pos­si­ble, such as a ge­need­it­ing at­tempt that ac­ci­den­tally al­ters the wrong DNA spot, and the poll finds 85 per­cent think that risk is at least some­what likely.

But about 7 in 10 Amer­i­cans op­pose us­ing gene edit­ing to al­ter ca­pa­bil­i­ties such as in­tel­li­gence or ath­letic tal­ent, and to al­ter phys­i­cal fea­tures such as eye color or height.

The poll high­lights that if gene edit­ing of em­bryos ever moves into fertility clin­ics, there will be some hard choices about what non-fa­tal dis­or­ders should qual­ify, said Columbia Univer­sity bioethi­cist Dr. Robert Kl­itz­man. What if sci­en­tists could pin­point genes in­volved with de­pres­sion or autism or obe­sity – would they be OK to edit?

“It’s one thing to look at the ex­tremes of fa­tal dis­eases versus cos­metic things, but in the mid­dle are go­ing to be these very dif­fer­ent is­sues,” Kl­itz­man said.

The AP-NORC poll of 1,067 adults was con­ducted Dec. 13-16 us­ing a sam­ple drawn from NORC’s prob­a­bil­ity-based Amer­iS­peak Panel, which is de­signed to be rep­re­sen­ta­tive of the U.S. pop­u­la­tion. The mar­gin of er­ror for all re­spon­dents is plus or mi­nus 4.1 per­cent­age points. Re­spon­dents were first se­lected ran­domly us­ing ad­dress­based sam­pling meth­ods, and later in­ter­viewed on­line or by phone.

That re­ported gene edit­ing in China was an at­tempt to cre­ate ba­bies re­sis­tant to HIV in­fec­tion, a tar­get that many sci­en­tists in the U.S. and else­where de­cried be­cause there are ef­fec­tive ways to pre­vent the AIDS virus.

The poll shows most peo­ple think it is at least some­what likely that gene edit­ing could wipe out cer­tain in­her­ited dis­eases and lead to other med­i­cal ad­vances.

Yet de­spite the med­i­cal en­thu­si­asm, more Amer­i­cans op­pose than fa­vor gov­ern­ment fund­ing for test­ing on hu­man em­bryos to de­velop gene-edit­ing tech­nol­ogy – 48 per­cent to 26 per­cent. About an­other quar­ter of the pop­u­la­tion takes no stand.

With­out that re­search, how could gene edit­ing ever be­come a choice for fam­i­lies hop­ing to avoid a dis­ease? “That’s a good ques­tion,” said Keener, the Pitts­burgh mu­seum worker, who op­poses such fund­ing for fear that re­search would lead to de­signer ba­bies rather than fight­ing dis­ease.

MARK SCHIEFELBEIN AP

An em­bry­ol­o­gist on Oct. 9 ad­justs a mi­croplate con­tain­ing em­bryos that were in­jected with gene-edit­ing com­po­nents in a lab­o­ra­tory in south­ern China.

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