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Because it is so simple and easy to use, CRISPR gene editing has generated huge excitement in the worlds of molecular biology, medical research, commercial biotechnology—and gene therapy, where it may make it possible to make changes with profound consequences. To date gene therapies have been designed to fix everyday sorts of cells, such as those of the blood, or the retina, or the pancreas. CRISPR makes it possible to think about aiming at the special cells that make sperm and eggs, or the genome of a fertilised embryo awaiting implantation in the womb. In either case the changes made would pass from one generation to the next, and the one after that, in perpetuity.
This sort of “germ-line” editing is widely seen as a bourn no ethical traveller should cross. Some scientists and research organisations want a moratorium on any work aimed at engineering the germ line; others say basic research on such things should continue, but any moves to use it in the clinic should at the very least be widely debated by society as a whole. America’s National Academies of Science are convening a gathering in December to look at the options. Genetics is a peculiarly personal science, but it is also one very prone to politics. The power of CRISPR looks sure to exacerbate that propensity.
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