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Harvard Medical School Dean Weighs In On Ethics Of Gene Editing


Now to someone who's been at the gene editing summit all week. Dr. George Daley is a stem cell and cancer researcher and dean of Harvard Medical School. When I reached him in Hong Kong, I asked whether news of the birth of genetically altered babies did in fact come as a surprise to him and to the other top scientists gathered this week.

GEORGE DALEY: Yeah, absolutely. You know, there's so many unknowns. And we really haven't yet engaged the public in ways that would make it acceptable. So it really did drop, like, a bomb on us.

KELLY: One of the many criticisms that's been made of this effort is that HIV is a disease which of course can be prevented in a lot of other ways, in less complicated, less expensive ways. Is that a factor as you think about this? I mean, might there be some diseases that would be worthy of gene-editing technology to prevent whereas maybe HIV isn't?

DALEY: Yes, and that's an essential part of the scientific and ethical debate. What are the permissible as opposed to the impermissible types of applications? Now, there's no doubt that, you know, rendering cells and rendering individuals through this process resistant to HIV would be a laudable goal. But there are other ways of avoiding HIV.

I think the international consensus is that the more appropriate interventions would be to eradicate horrendous, life-threatening diseases like Huntington's or Tay-Sachs or sickle cell anemia. We I think all thought that the first in human use would be for one of the more compelling uses. You know, instead we have this approach which I think does raise additional questions about the propriety of having done it.

KELLY: I suppose the question is, once the technology is out there, who gets to make these decisions? I mean, what is your thinking about how this should be governed once the horse is out of the barn?

DALEY: That's an issue that we've been delving into deeply here at this second international summit. The fact is that many uses of technology have a double edge to them. They can be applied to relieve human suffering, or they can be abused.

And just think about the current challenges of the opioid crisis, the epidemic of addiction. You know, we still realize that we have to use these medications to relieve cancer pain and the pain of diseases like sickle cell anemia. So it's always known that technologies come with some balance of risks and benefits. But it's engaging in that discussion which has been so important.

KELLY: And how did the conversation about this unfold at the conference this week?

DALEY: I think the discussion has been universally condemning of this approach. And it surfaced as well in the discussions that this gene, CCR5, while it is related to HIV, it's also been shown in mice at least to be related to learning and memory. So this in fact could be the first case of an attempt to engineer a baby with enhanced learning and memory, which would be an enhancement.

And that raises all kinds of questions about how that technology is going to be used. Is it going to be distributed equitably, or is it going to be exploited by particular populations for their own advantage? This is part of the discussion that was I think particularly concerning around this intervention.

KELLY: You're reminding me of something you told us. We interviewed you last year before we knew anything about these twin babies and this experiment in the works. And you talked about the importance of professional standards. You said standards, not laws, were the best way to govern what is going on in the field and in research labs. Is that still where you are?

DALEY: It is. I mean, I spoke about self-regulation in science. It's part of a grand tradition dating back to the earliest days of recombinant DNA when a group of scientists came together in Asilomar and recognizing that recombinant DNA held great promise but also many unknowns, including questions of security and safety. This is a new technology with great promise but also fraught with potential for changing kind of humanity. And so, you know, we really have said this should be done through self-regulation.

Now, what I'm worried about is that this first use being such a misstep may create an imperative to clamp down. You know, there may be some countries - many countries already essentially prohibit this. But I'd hate to see that other countries jump on board because...

KELLY: Oh, so you're worried about the chilling effect of this on what you still see as important research.

DALEY: I think the research is important. And I think laws aren't the best way to engage a rapidly evolving science. I think in the future, there will be permissible uses. There will be an acceptance because there is the possibility that this could be used for great human good. And so I am concerned about this backlash. And I am concerned about the chilling effect on the science.

KELLY: Dr. George Daley - he is dean of Harvard Medical School, and he was speaking with us there from Hong Kong. Dr. Daley, thank you.

DALEY: Well, thank you for your interest, Mary Louise.

(SOUNDBITE OF DJ CAM QUARTET'S "REBIRTH OF COOL") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.