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Gene Editing May Vanquish Deadly Diseases, But Some See Risks

Powerful gene-editing tools like CRISPR/Cas9 have made it easy to alter the DNA sequences that make up our genetic code. But some experts worry.
Chromosomes, artwork
Revolutionary gene-editing tools may soon make it possible to cure genetic illnesses.Science Photo Library via Getty Images

Powerful gene-editing tools like CRISPR/Cas9 have made it relatively easy to alter the DNA sequences that serve as the genetic code of plants and animals, including humans. As a result, scientists say we may be on the brink of a major revolution in health care.

The tools may make it possible to cure genetic illnesses like cystic fibrosis and sickle-cell anemia and to eradicate malaria, a disease that kills hundreds of thousands of people each year. They may also bring cures for certain forms of cancer. And scientists working with mice have shown that CRISPR can rid the body of HIV, the virus that causes AIDS.

But while some experts see the promise of gene editing, others see peril.

Some worry that gene editing could change our DNA in unintended ways, triggering health problems. And since the same tools that make it possible to fix faulty genes can be used to insert genes to enhance desirable traits, some foresee the rise of so-called "designer babies" engineered to have, say, superior intelligence or athletic ability.

To explore these issues and others associated with gene editing, Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health hosted a one-hour panel discussion on Friday, May 19. You can watch it above.

The panelists included:

*George Annas, professor of health law, policy and management at Boston University and a well-known bioethicist.

*Dr. Flaminia Catteruccia, associate professor of immunology and infectious diseases at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. Caterrucia is noted for her research on genetically engineered mosquitoes as a means to control malaria. (Catteruccia also participated in a 30-minute Facebook Live Q&A discussion you can watch here.)

*Dr. George Church, professor of genetics at Harvard Medical School and a pioneer in gene-editing research.

*Dr. Howard Kaufman, a surgical oncologist at Rutgers Cancer Institute of New Jersey and a member of the Recombinant DNA Advisory Committee at the National Institutes of Health.

The panel was moderated by David Freeman, editorial director of NBC News MACH.

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