Azim Surani - Should we edit humans?

13 February 2016

Interview with

Azim Surani - University of Cambridge

Kat - Back in December, the US national academies of sciences and medicine, the Royal Society in London and the Chinese Academy of Sciences convened a major summit in Washington to discuss the use and implications of using CRISPR for modifying human cells and embryos. The technology to do this is either in place or in progress, but just because we can, doesn't mean that we should.

Professor Azim Surani from the Gurdon Institute in Cambridge went along and I spoke to him during a break at the Progress Educational Trust conference - where he'd been presenting his work on creating egg and sperm cells from somatic cells in the body such as skin - to find out who went to the Washington summit, and what happened.

Azim - Well, there were scientists and there were ethicists, there were lawyers. So, it was a mixed group of people. So the scientists were putting the information on and how far the technique has got and what new developments might come.

Kat - Presumably, what we don't know as well and what some of risks are.

Azim - There are risks. For example, most of the work suggests that they don't have particular problems with off target effects.

Kat - This is accidentally cutting things you don't want to cut?

Azim - Yeah. It looks like the incidence of off-target effects is far less than was anticipated. So, that's one good thing.

Kat - In terms of the technology, we now know that there are researchers who are working on how to take cells from the body - somatic cells like skin cells and then treat them in certain ways, and even potentially turn these into egg and sperm. I mean, that's a whole world - not needing to take an egg and a sperm from a man and a woman and edit them. But actually, you could just take someone's skin cells and make a baby and change those genes.

Azim - Because these are children that are not born yet so you can't talk about informed consent.

Kat - So kind of the playing God argument.

Azim - And then other people say, yeah, well when you have children naturally you don't ask their permission. You're just passing on your genes.

Kat - I didn't want to be born!

Azim - Good and bad. You don't go and say, "I didn't get permission from the children I gave birth to" or something like that. So, those are things that did come up at the meeting. I think the thing that was surprising to me was that I went there thinking that there'd be a lot of people who would be saying, "Gene editing, germ line gene editing is a red line. We don't cross this. I found that overall, people were much more prepared to debate this and they didn't say, "We should never do it." The consensus at the end was that we should review this periodically so they want to see how the science is progressing, what the public views are, whether the public opinion is shifting like it did for some of the other things. 

So, I think that's a good thing because I think we have to see - so, I think at the moment, the decision is that people just press on. They're doing basic research. So, if you have for example a very good reason why you want to use CRISPR/Cas9 on human embryos for example, not to implant but, to understand how genes work, how cells are made, and so on. So, I think the general consensus is that this should be allowed. I think this could also be the case with cells that give rise to germ cells. I've already used it in the synthetic germ cells we are making to understand how genes are working.

Kat - How important is it, this isn't just a decision that the scientists make? Say, "Okay, we understand the science. We should be the ones to decide how this works."

Azim - I think that absolutely not. I don't think that scientists are forcing this issue. I think my reading of the situation is that scientists are excited about the work they're doing because I think this is a very powerful tool and so, most of the basic researchers see this as an opportunity to gain knowledge. That's exciting enough for them. They're not necessarily interested in pushing this onto the public and say, "Now, we need to decide because we can do it. we will do it." I think the overall, the tone of this meeting was that we will present the signs and we want to inform the public and then it has to be a decision for the public through the regulatory committees and agencies. They differ in different countries so it's not going to be uniform. That was very clear that it's not - it may be that the regulatory framework is not going to be the same everywhere because there are different conditions and things like that. So, it will very much be dependent on each country, kind of taking this on, but doing it through this interaction, international interaction so that there's a debate internationally as well.

Kat - And to return to some of the more exciting technology down the road, people are now starting to talk about making egg and sperm cells from cells in the body, potentially engineering those. How do you see that kind of technology unfolding? Is this going to be the future of this kind of technology?

Azim - I think we are - to be honest - we are far from that. I think really, we're just taking the first steps. I mean, we're just literally being able to make the very early germ cells. Also, a much more complicated issue is whether they're going through proper programming. You'd have to see whether they're going through all of those kinds of changes properly in culture.

Kat - That was Professor Azim Surani from the Gurdon Institute in Cambridge.

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