Madison scientists share gene editing insights

Scientists from UW-Madison and the Morgridge Institute for Research were in Germany earlier this month for an international conference on gene editing, an emerging field with seemingly limitless potential.

These experts shared insight into the possibilities for human health and other industry applications, but also detailed potential hazards.

Pilar Ossorio, a bioethicist at Morgridge and a UW-Madison law professor, points out that although human trials for genetic manipulation are highly regulated, other areas of exploration are wide open.

For example, a DNA editing technique for spreading a desired change through a population called a ‘gene drive’ could limit mosquitos’ ability to carry health threats like West Nile or malaria.

Ossario says security experts worry about gene drives being used to poison food supplies or to actually increase mosquitos’ disease spreading capabilities in certain areas.

CRISPR Cas9 is a gene-editing technique which has opened the floodgates in recent years on new innovations and research. It’s being used to develop new pharmaceuticals, grow more resilient and fast-growing crops, remove genetic mutations that lead to blindness and other conditions, and even create miniature pigs for pets.

Whether people like it or not, conference co-organizer Dietram Scheufele says “genome editing is here to stay” in the medical field but also with “countless applications” in food production.

Scheufele is a professor of life sciences communication at UW-Madison, and is on an advisory committee for the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. He says the advancement of gene-editing techniques like CRISPR Cas9 has added to concerns about dangerous military applications being developed.

But he adds some of these fears, at least, are “far from being realistic scientifically.”

According to a post last week from the MIT Technology Review, scientists at the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard have just developed an even more precise method of editing DNA called ‘base editing,’ in which even smaller parts of the genome can be repaired or changed.

Dominique Brossard, chair of the life sciences communication department and professor at UW-Madison, gave a keynote speech at the conference, arguing for greater public engagement to prepare society for new advancements like these.

“When assessing the security implications of genome editing, it will be particularly important to include the voices of all stakeholders,” Brossard said. “Risk is not only a technical concept that scientific experts can quantify.”

–By Alex Moe