Two-thirds of Americans approve of editing human DNA to treat disease

Two-thirds of Americans approve of editing human DNA to treat disease

But opinions vary based on religious beliefs

Illustration by Alex Castro / The Verge

About two-thirds of Americans support the use of gene editing to treat diseases, according to a new survey. But opinions vary a lot based on people’s religious beliefs and how much they know about gene editing in general.

The research, published earlier this month in Science, shows that across the board, people want to be involved in a public discussion about editing the human genome. And that conversation with scientists and public officials needs to happen now, as the technology is still developing, says study co-author Dietram Scheufele, a science communication scholar at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. The results are based on a survey of 1,600 US adults conducted in December 2016 and January 2017.

The goal of the survey was to probe public opinion on a revolutionary piece of technology that’s advancing fast, Scheufele tells The Verge. The advent of powerful gene editing tools like CRISPR is making editing human DNA incredibly easy and precise. The technology holds the potential to rid humanity of diseaseslike sickle cell anemia. Earlier this month, researchers in the US successfully edited dozens of human embryos and corrected a gene mutation that causes a serious heart condition. (The embryos were not developed into babies.)

But how does the public feel about editing human DNA? First of all, gene editing can mean a lot of different things: you can edit the human genome for therapeutic purposes, to treat disease, for instance; or potentially to “enhance” human abilities, such as intelligence. And those changes can be made so that they’re passed on to future generations (so-called germline editing) or so that they affect only the individual whose cells are being edited (somatic editing).

Scheufele wanted to survey the public on gene editing in all its nuances, because people may have very different opinions on whether embryos are edited to cure a crippling disease or to boost a kid’s intelligence. (None of these things have been accomplished yet; the research is still in its infancy.) And one of his findings took Scheufele by surprise: he expected people to draw a line when it comes to all kinds of germline editing. After all, edits that can be passed on to future generations can change the human gene pool forever — and we don’t really know what the consequences might be. But he found that people really only drew a line when editing, especially germline editing, was for “enhancement” rather than treating disease.

So, what drives people’s attitudes toward gene editing? Religion and knowledge play a role. In the survey, Scheufele asked participants nine true-or-false factual questions about gene editing, to see how much they knew about human DNA, genetically modified foods, and CRISPR. He found that those who could correctly answer six or more questions tended to be much more in favor of gene editing, whether for therapeutic purposes or for enhancing abilities. That could be because people who have a better understanding of the science are aware that, compared to past gene editing technology, CRISPR is amazingly precise, Scheufele says. “The more you know, the more you understand it’s actually pretty safe,” he says.

Scheufele also found that very religious people were less likely to support either type of gene editing (for therapy or enhancement) compared to less religious people. That could be because altering the human genome — perhaps permanently — could be seen as “playing God.” “The US is a deeply religious country,” Scheufele says. “And religion will play a large role in this discourse around human gene editing, especially if we do research … on embryos.”

The researchers also found that a person’s religious beliefs and knowledge about gene editing also affected how much they trust scientists. Highly religious people and people with little understanding of gene editing were much more doubtful about the ability of scientists to develop the technology responsibly.

Finally, Scheufele and his colleagues found that no matter people’s opinions on gene editing, the American public wants to be engaged. Close to three-quarters of the most knowledgeable and most religious respondents supported the idea that scientists should consult with the public before editing human genes.

Engaging the public is key, Scheufele says. The most important questions raised by CRISPR and its use — should parents have the right to edit their baby’s genome? Where should we draw a line with gene editing? — don’t have scientific answers. “They only have ethical, moral, political, societal answers,” Scheufele says. We need a broad debate so that we, as a society, can agree on what’s acceptable.

And this debate needs to happen now, while the technology is still in development, Scheufele says. Gene editing research is just at the beginning, and if we wait until we can actually create HIV-resistant babies to have a conversation about the pros and cons, it might be too late. “Right now we still have time,” he says.

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