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Gene Editing | Munk Debates

SEASON TWO - EPISODE #54

Gene Editing

Be it resolved, let’s engineer a better human being.

Guests
George Church
Joyce Harper

About this episode

We’ve come a long way since DNA was first discovered in the mid-19th century. Today’s scientists are using powerful engineering techniques to edit genes in human eggs and sperm, curing diseases and repairing defective genes before a child is even born. Some scientists are excited about these therapies, championing them as an exciting opportunity to create immunity to viruses, eliminate serious illnesses like AIDS, Alzheimer’s, and cancer, and possibly reverse aging. Like prior innovations in medicine and technology, why wouldn’t we embrace a science that allows people to live longer, healthier, and happier lives?

Others are alarmed. They are worried that these new techniques raise a host of profound ethical issues. While eliminating genetic diseases is a worthwhile endeavor, many parents might be inclined to use this science to create designer babies: children who are smarter, taller, or have other supposedly desirable traits. And these tools aren’t cheap. They will surely be available to the rich first, creating a terrifying new dimension to the growing economic inequality crisis. Scientists also point out that ‘playing god’ and editing genes will alter our DNA code forever, and one mistake could inadvertently introduce new diseases into the human gene pool. While the desire to cure genetic diseases is a noble one, the manipulation of our DNA is more likely than not to push humanity towards a dangerous and dystopian future no one wants.

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Guests

George Church

“If we bring the cost down, help with education, and make sure there's a dialogue that goes on in both directions, then everybody will have access.”

George Church

“If we bring the cost down, help with education, and make sure there's a dialogue that goes on in both directions, then everybody will have access.”

George M. Church, PhD ’84, is professor of genetics at Harvard Medical School, a founding member of the Wyss Institute, and director of PersonalGenomes.org, the world’s only open-access information on human genomic, environmental, and trait data. Church is known for pioneering the fields of personal genomics and synthetic biology. He developed the first methods for the first genome sequence & dramatic cost reductions since then (down from $3 billion to $600), contributing to nearly all “next generation sequencing” methods and companies. His team invented CRISPR for human stem cell genome editing and other synthetic biology technologies and applications – including new ways to create organs for transplantation, gene therapies for aging reversal, and gene drives to eliminate Lyme Disease and Malaria.

Church is director of IARPA & NIH BRAIN Projects and National Institutes of Health Center for Excellence in Genomic Science. He has co-authored more than 590 papers and 155 patent publications, and one book, Regenesis. His honors include Franklin Bower Laureate for Achievement in Science, the Time 100, and election to the National Academies of Sciences and Engineering.

Joyce Harper

“I worry that these technologies will not be accessible to all and I also worry that people will use them for non-medical reasons. We will have a rich-poor divide that will become bigger and bigger as technology advances.”

Joyce Harper

“I worry that these technologies will not be accessible to all and I also worry that people will use them for non-medical reasons. We will have a rich-poor divide that will become bigger and bigger as technology advances.”

Joyce Harper is an author, academic, scientist and educator. She is Professor of Reproductive Science at University College London in the Institute for Women’s Health where she is Head of the Reproductive Science and Society Group. She is a Director of the Embryology and PGD Academy which delivers an online certificate in clinical embryology and founder of Global Women Connected.

She has worked in the fields of fertility, genetics and reproductive science since 1987, written over 200 scientific papers and published three books. She started her career as an embryologist, then moved into reproductive science and genetics. Now she is researching into fertility education, FemTech, and the social aspects of infertility treatment including donation and IVF add-ons. 

She is co-founder of the UK Fertility Education Initiative (www.fertilityed.uk) and founder of the International Fertility Education Initiative.

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