Specter highlights exciting developments in the field of gene editing, but he is too quick to dismiss the shadow side. Writing that CRISPR “offers a new outlet for the inchoate fear of tinkering with the fundamentals of life” is an inadequate characterization of the risks involved. The piece describes a nightmare of Jennifer Doudna’s, in which she tutors Hitler about editing genes, but does not reference Eric Lander’s sober warning, in an article on heritable genome manipulation, in the New England Journal of Medicine.
Specter does not mention that dozens of countries, including most with developed biotech sectors, have written prohibitions on heritable genetic manipulation into their laws, and into a binding international treaty. In distinguishing the public—and its advocates—from scientists, Specter might lead readers to erroneously believe that researchers are not deeply concerned. Nearly all scientists want a broad public debate about what kind of gene editing should be pursued. This is a potentially society-altering technology, and democratic engagement with its trajectory is crucial and pressing.
Executive Director, Center for Genetics and Society