Gene editing: ‘risks in both directions’

Josephine Johnston.
Josephine Johnston.
Other nations would also benefit if New Zealanders held a national discussion on the ethical problems and potential benefits of new DNA engineering technology.

United States-based bioethicist and University of Otago graduate Josephine Johnston made that comment during a panel discussion held at the  University of Otago on Thursday  night.

The overall discussion was part of a Royal Society of New Zealand prestigious speakers series on "Editing Our Genes: Promises and Pitfalls".

More than 60 people attended the event, chaired by broadcaster Kim Hill.

Talk organisers said  the power to engineer DNA had once been a "science fiction fantasy", but was now within reach. Using a new genome editing technique, called CRISPR/Cas9, scientists were exploring deleting, altering and adding to the genes of many organisms, from yeast to dairy cattle, and the "most controversial" applications were in humans.

The new approaches could  help to correct disease-causing genes responsible for cystic fibrosis, or increasing HIV resistance in immune cells.

Other panel members were Otago microbiologist Associate Prof Peter Fineran, Otago medical law and ethics scholar Associate Prof Colin Gavaghan and Ngati Porou Hauora health improvement researcher Dr Jennie Harre Hindmarsh, of Gisborne.

Dr Harre Hindmarsh said Maori and Pacific people needed to be consulted early about their views on the new technology.

Prof Gavaghan said there were also significant risks in being overcautious about the new technology, as there were in not being cautious enough — "there are risks in both directions".

Parents who had children struggling with severe diseases with a strong genetic component were likely to press for research to be undertaken to develop new therapies, he said.

john.gibb@odt.co.nz

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