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During University Research Week, I will participate in a panel discussion titled “Editing Along Ethical Boundaries,” which will take place on October 21 at 11 a.m. We will discuss the documentary “Human Nature,” which explores the scientific breakthrough called CRISPR.

CRISPR allows for easy modification of DNA, creating new possibilities for improving human health. Already, advances are being made for using CRISPR to provide a cure for genetic disorders such as sickle cell anemia, as well as for many other diseases. In addition to human health, CRISPR has also opened a pathway to engineer the world around us for the benefit of agriculture and the environment. But it also presents ethical dilemmas for medicine, religion, and society at large.

To that end, the Personal Genetics Education Project, consisting of a team of scientists, social scientists, educators, and community organizers, has formed to address how genome editing impacts individuals and society. According to the teacher guide produced by the group, when used for genome editing, the CRISPR system has two main components:

Graphic: Mechanism of CRISPR gene editing system
  1. A targeting system that finds the right place in the genome to cut. This is achieved by a molecule called a guide RNA (gRNA), which has the same genetic sequence as the target site; and 
  2. a component for making the cut to the DNA. This consists of a DNA-cutting enzyme called Cas9.

“When both of these components are delivered into a cell, the gRNA will bind to the target genomic site through complementary base pairing,” states the teacher guide. “This pairing brings the Cas9 to the target site to make a cut to the DNA. The cell’s natural DNA repair mechanism will close the gap, but the process is not perfect, and a few DNA bases will be added or deleted, which renders the gene nonfunctional. CRISPR can also be used to replace a defective version of a gene that causes disease with the correct version. In this case, the desired version of the target gene can be placed into the cell along with the gRNA and Cas9. The cell will then use this desired sequence as a template to repair the broken DNA.”

It is clear the genome editing by CRISPR has potential significant benefits, but it also raises profound questions such as altering the germ line for “designer babies” and, potentially, the ecosystem to eradicate or change species of all kinds. Society needs to understand and seek a balance between the benefits of genome editing and unintended consequences of altering the genome. There is a need to have broad conversations that engage all communities and ensure that diverse values and voices are heard. Researchers, bioethicists, and policymakers have called for caution and the need for public consultation and dialogue that involves patients, faith leaders, environmental activists, and disability rights advocates.

I hope you will join us for this discussion on “Human Nature.” Panelists include myself, RENCI Director Stan Ahalt, and UNC Center for Bioethics Director Eric Juengst. We will explore how UNC researchers are leveraging this game-changing technology in their research, how data scientists are powering their breakthroughs, and the ethical implications all must consider. The movie is available to watch now on the links provided using your ONYEN credentials or PBS account information. We invite you to submit your questions for the panelists while you view the movie. We will begin the panel discussion with the questions that have already been submitted

Please visit the University Research Week website often over these next two weeks as information on the exciting event line-up is added daily. While we cannot participate in person this year, we have no shortage of engaging, informative, and inspiring events planned that celebrate UNC’s research excellence.

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