Discoverer of revolutionary gene-editing tool voices ethical concerns

A Germany-based French microbiologist who co-discovered a revolutionary gene-editing tool that is raising some serious ethical issues said she's firmly opposed to using it to alter human reproductive cells.

"I don't think it's right," Emmanuelle Charpentier, director of the Department of Regulation in Infection Biology at the Max Planck Institute for Infection Biology (MPIIB) in Berlin, told dpa.

"The question for me is, 'Why?' What's the purpose of manipulating the human germ line?"

A germ line is the sex cells (eggs and sperm) used by sexually reproducing organisms to pass on genes from generation to generation. 

Called CRISPR-Cas9, the approximately 3-year-old genome engineering technology gives scientists the power to alter the genetic material of all organisms - people, animals, plants, bacteria - and is "very cheap and simple," Charpentier said.

Highly versatile, it can silence, activate or excise targeted genes or gene sequences, or add genes or gene sequences, which opens up new possibilities in biomedical gene therapies.

Charming and witty, the Frenchwoman quickly turns serious when it comes to ethical issues. Her meteoric rise in scientific circles began with sojourns in the United States, Vienna, Sweden and the German city of Braunschweig.

It's become difficult to arrange an interview with Charpentier since her move to the MPIIB in Berlin last October. A public relations firm now filters the many requests from journalists around the world.

She was more accessible while in Braunschweig, appearing for an interview dressed in jeans, blazer and scarf. The photographer wanted to take a picture of her in a lab coat and with a bacteria culture, but she declined, saying she normally didn't work in a laboratory anymore. The days when she conducted experiments herself are past.

Charpentier, 47, collaborated on the groundbreaking gene-editing discovery with Jennifer Doudna, 51, an American biochemist and professor of molecular and cell biology at the University of California, Berkeley.

Tipped as prime candidates for a Nobel Prize, the two were named among the "100 most influential people" in the world last year by the US magazine Time.

The US-based journal Science selected CRISPR, which stands for "clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats," as its 2015 Breakthrough of the Year. Cas9 stands for "CRISPR associated protein 9."

On top of all their other awards for CRISPR-Cas9, Charpentier and Doudna are now to receive the Paul Ehrlich and Ludwig Darmstaedter Prize 2016 - for outstanding accomplishments in the field of biomedical research - by the Paul Ehrlich Foundation, which is affiliated with the University of Frankfurt and dedicated to the memory of the late German medical scientist and Nobel Prize laureate Ehrlich.

Darmstaedter was a German chemist and historian of science.

The 100,000-euro (about 109,000 dollars) prize will be presented on March 14 in St Paul's Church, a civic monument, in Frankfurt.

In the words of the foundation's board of trustees, the CRISPR-Cas9 gene-editing tool is a "quantum leap" enabling, "more precisely than ever before, an understanding of how specific genetic changes affect the occurrence of diseases or development of organisms."

The foundation also raises ethical questions, pointing out that any genetic changes in the human germ line would be passed on to the next generation.

Scientists in China said they've already used CRISPR/Cas9 in human embryos to repair a gene responsible for a potentially life-threatening blood disorder, though the embryos weren’t viable and couldn’t be carried to term.

"The consequences are essentially unforeseeable," warned Joerg Hacker, president of the German National Academy of Sciences Leopoldina, last year. "We certainly don't want to experiment with embryos. That would be awful." 

Last update: Wed, 22/06/2016 - 15:01

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