UW Life Sciences Communication professors Dietram Scheufele and Dominique Brossard conducted one of the first national surveys to gauge public opinion surrounding genome editing.
Their study dove into the nuances of DNA editing — asking participants their opinions on both editing DNA for just one individual, or making changes that would be passed down through generations. There are now genetic tests for sickle-cell anemia, Tay-Sachs disease, and Down syndrome, among others. Could these genes simply be edited out of the population? Harvard scientists have also announced today that gene-edited piglets could potentially be used for growing organs for human transplants.
Scheufele says, surprisingly, people aren’t totally opposed to making changes that would get passed down.
“People distinguished very clearly between therapeutic uses and enhancement uses,” Scheufele says. “So if it’s about curing diseases, people are much more open to the idea of making edits that will be passed on through generations.”
Nearly two-thirds of respondents said they support editing genes that would be passed down through generations if it meant preventing disease. Only a quarter of people supported editing those kinds of cells for cosmetic purposes, though… to enhance a person’s physical traits or appearance.
The study also gauged how religious respondents are, along with how much they already know about the topic. People with strong religious beliefs were both more hesitant of the technology and more doubtful that the scientific community would be able to properly regulate this technology.
People who knew more about the technology, though, were more optimistic. What didn’t differ much? Their desire to be part of the conversation.
“We may differ in our attitudes toward that new technology, but a lot of us agree that we really do want to be part of the conversations about some of the ethical, moral and political questions that this new technology raises.”
Scheufele says the technology opens the door to practically endless moral questions — Who will have access to the technology? Will it put pressure on parents to modify their kids? What long-term effects will this have on the human population?
Scheufele says often people regard those questions as premature, since the technology hasn’t come that far. But he disagrees, and so do many of his respondents.
“My argument would be given how complex and how challenging some of those moral questions are, we need to have the conversation long before the technology arrives, and not wait until the technology’s here and not have the time to weigh them through carefully,” Scheufele says.
And he says the conversation will be important as the technology continues to develop. Public conversations around a topic have shifted the direction of technology in the past — especially in the case of stem cells.
“Maybe there’s ways in which we roll this out that’s different than we originally planned,’ Scheufele says.
The study was published this week in the journal Science.