by Matthew Cobb
I’ve recently made a BBC radio programme about gene editing, a new form of genetic manipulation that generally goes by the name of the acronym CRISPR. Over the last 3-4 years this technique has taken biological and medical research by storm. Clinical trials of therapies for patients suffering blood-born genetic diseases may be only a couple of years away. Although the prospect of ‘designer babies’ excite ethicists and the media, I think a bigger issue is posed by the prospect of CRISPR-based ‘gene drives’.
Gene drives are techniques for spreading genes through a sexually-reproducing population, which can very quickly affect every organism. These are the approaches that some people are suggesting would be a way of stopping diseases transmitted by certain species of mosquito, by rendering all the mosquitoes sterile (and thereby making them disappear) or by altering them so that they cannot host the malaria parasite, or they cannot detect their human prey).
Clearly, things could go wrong, and we could find ourselves doing serious damage to the ecosystem. For the moment, there are no international regulations to control this kind of work, even though many of the scientists involved are keen to see such a framework.
In the radio programme, which only lasts 30 minutes, I explain how CRISPR works, talk to some of the people who developed CRISPR, and to those who are seeking to apply it, both in humans – there is a moving interview with the mother of a young boy with Duchenne’s Muscular Dystrophy, who founded a charity to support research – and in insects. The theme is the scientific, ethical and ecological implications of this amazing new technology.
The programme, which is called “Editing Life”, will be on BBC Radio 4 at 11:00 am UK time, tomorrow morning, Tuesday 9 February. There will also be an article in The Guardian, which I’ll link to tomorrow. In March there will be an extended version, consisting of two programmes, which will go out on the BBC World Service.