GENE EDITING SCIENCE AND ETHICS

By Paul Gabrielsen, science writer, University Marketing & Communications

Depending on your point of view, gene editing — the ability to change an organism’s DNA — could be one of the greatest or one of the most concerning scientific discoveries ever made. For people with inherited diseases, the technology offers the chance of a treatment for conditions once deemed untreatable. But the prospect of changing a person’s genetic makeup — especially making changes that can be inherited by future generations – is rife with ethical dilemmas.

On March 21, University of Utah Health’s Benning Lecture series hosts biochemist Jennifer Doudna, one of the pioneers of the CRISPR gene editing technology. She will speak to the general public from 6:30 to 8 p.m. Her presentation addresses the theme of “Rewriting the Language of Life: The Biology, Technology and Ethics of DNA Editing.” The lecture is free, although registration is required.

Register by March 16 here.

In 2012, Doudna, of the University of California, Berkeley, and colleagues demonstrated that an aspect of bacterial immune systems could be engineered to make precise, targeted edits in strands of DNA. Since the 1980s, researchers have noticed bacterial DNA containing clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats (abbreviated to CRISPR) of DNA information. Further research found that the CRISPR sequences were part of a system to cut DNA from invading viruses out of an organism’s DNA.

Doudna and her colleagues, particularly French microbiologist Emmanuelle Charpentier, showed that an enzyme associated with the CRISPR system, called Cas9, could be used in concert with a guide sequence of genetic material to make precise, targeted cuts in DNA strands.

Since then, researchers around the world have started exploring the applications and implications of CRISPR, from treating rare genetic diseases to boosting crop yields to curtailing disease-spreading mosquitoes. As ethical issues have arisen surrounding CRISPR, however, Doudna and other scientists have called for a moratorium on making edits in humans that could be inherited by future generations.

Doudna’s lecture will cover the scientific basis of the CRISPR system from its bacterial origins, the myriad ways the technology can advance biology and medicine, and the difficult ethical issues those advances pose.

The H. A. and Edna Benning Presidential Endowment was established through a generous gift to the University of Utah through the estate of Arthur E. Benning. The gift is in honor of Benning’s parents H. A. and Edna Benning. The endowment allows the university’s medical school to recruit and retain top researchers and clinicians in a variety of fields. The endowment also establishes the prestigious H. A. and Edna Benning Medical Society. The group includes each of the Benning chair holders and sponsors a lecture or symposium series held at the university focusing on leading-edge medicine.