View of Gene Editing Depends on How It’s Used, Poll Finds

(National Institutes of Health)

(CN) – Should gene editing be used to treat serious congenital diseases or boost a baby’s brainpower? According to a Pew survey published Thursday, Americans are generally supportive of gene editing but have clear boundaries and concerns about “going too far.”

For example, only 19 percent of the 2,537 people polled would support using gene editing technology to “boost a baby’s intelligence.”

But a majority support using the technology to treat birth defects. Continuing its research on public views of gene editing, Pew found that 72 percent of people polled would support “changing an unborn baby’s genetic characteristics to treat a serious disease or condition” that would be seen at birth.

“As people think about a future with possible widespread use of gene editing to change a baby’s genetic makeup, the survey finds more anticipate negative than positive effects on society. Specifically, 58 percent believe gene editing will very likely lead to increased inequality because it will only be available to the wealthy,” the Pew researchers said.

While these questions build on previous Pew polls in 2016 and 2017 regarding public perceptions of gene editing, the development of tools like CRISPR gives questions like these more weight as they become less hypothetical.

CRISPR is an enzyme able to slice strands of DNA, enabling scientists to make modifications with potential medical applications.

Throughout the literature, scientists have begun discussing how to broach the topic with the public while maintaining support and addressing the technology’s potential consequences.

In an essay for Nature, Sheila Jasanoff, professor of science and technology studies at the Harvard Kennedy School argues gene editing should be aligned with social values and priorities.

“If the ethical stakes of human germline genome editing are limited to questions of physical safety, for example, then the technical evaluation of particular biological endpoints … might offer sufficient answers,” Jasanoff wrote. “But such a focus short-circuits the central question of how to care for and value human life, individually, societally and in relation to other forms of life on Earth.”

In another Nature comment Simon Burall, director of British think tank Involve, recognized some of the factors that influence an individual’s reaction to gene editing, and suggested they be leveraged for debate.

“Those with certain values, politics and beliefs might be enthusiastic at the outset; others antagonistic,” Burrall wrote. “Still others, such as those belonging to patient groups or who are active in local conservation projects, might be interested but unaware of the technology. Crucially, most will already be embedded in an array of interlinked networks … These existing networks offer numerous channels for widening awareness about gene editing and for sparking more-nuanced conversations about its possible impacts.”

Pew also zooms in on the correlation of belief and education with a person’s opinion of gene editing.

Americans who reported a low commitment to religion were more likely to support using gene editing to treat diseases, while a little more than half of highly religious respondents believe treating congenital diseases is “taking technology too far.”

Eighty-six percent of respondents with “high science knowledge” considered it appropriate to use gene editing to treat congenital disorders, while 71 percent further supported applying the technology to treat diseases that would occur later in life.

As gene editing technology continues to develop, so too will the debate about its place in society.

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