Ignoring the Future Won't Forestall It

Discouraging the use of CRISPR and genetic editing technologies won't make us any safer.

Recent American experiments with genetically edited embryos have reignited both excitement and consternation over the possibility of modifying human DNA. Some scientists have called for extreme caution moving forward; others are responding by preparing kids for a new world that might soon include "Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats," or CRISPR for short, biotechnology that allows for precise genetic engineering.

While it may sound like science fiction, this type of technological innovation is here to stay. China, for example, has been experimenting with genetic editing for some time. Thus it's important to take a proactive approach and equip the next generation with the tools to both use CRISPR appropriately and remain competitive in a changing world.

Jane Powel, a longtime teacher and president of the science and engineering education company OmniLearn, runs a summer science camp for children at East Woods school, several miles east of New York City. Her team of scientists, educators, and PhDs teaches a wide variety of topics that curious students can explore, including biotechnology and CRISPR, 3D printing, robotics, and coding. Powel uses this program to briefly introduce students in the biotechnology track to CRISPR technology before setting them up with a series of hands-on experiments.

Similarly, Michael Hirsch, a science teacher and lab manager at Acera School near Cambridge, Massachusetts, incorporated CRISPR into the curriculum he uses for his 6th through 8th grade classes.

Both teachers encourage their students to discuss the ethical and technical issues that might come with the technology – and the children's ability to foresee problems and consider ethical conundrums is astounding.

When Powel recently asked her class if CRISPR might have some problematic issues, one young student immediately raised his hand and noted that the technology could easily damage parts of a person's DNA even while fixing the intended portion.

Hirsch also asked his students to think critically about what circumstances would warrant using such powerful technology. Most of the kids agreed that doctors should use CRISPR to try to cure dangerous diseases, but there were myriad opinions when Hirsch asked them about applications beyond healing.

These students demonstrate both an eagerness to learn and the ability to think through the broader implications of using such technology in a responsible manner.

Powel understands the power and potential danger of genetic science, and says that is all the more reason for children to learn about it and consider its benefits and drawbacks. She argues that not only can teaching science give children the technical skills required to succeed as they get older, but it can also be a vehicle to encourage curiosity and problem-solving skills, and provide tools that will help them succeed in any career they choose.

It would be a mistake to allow extreme caution and fear to prevent students from being exposed to CRISPR. Withholding knowledge not only inhibits their ability to develop a well-considered approach to technological change, but also places them at a future disadvantage. As personalized medicine and CRISPR quickly gain dominance, students exposed to these concepts at an early age will be more equipped to succeed in a shifting medical and tech environment.

Allowing institutions to embrace these new technologies could harness the power of the brilliant minds of the next generation, leading to discoveries that might solve some of the moral issues we don't have answers for today. Already those students being exposed to CRISPR are showing the desire and capacity to think deeply about these things. It is not surprising that both of the schools mentioned above are located in the vicinity of some of the most forward-thinking institutions pursuing this research.

On a global scale, extreme caution will only hinder our competitiveness with other countries. In March 2016 the Chinese government kicked off a 15-year, $9.2 billion push to establish itself as the uncontested king of genomics and precision medicine. While the Obama administration made similar efforts through the Precision Medicine Initiative, there has been little movement.

In fact, Congress has explicitly banned federal funds from being used for the type of embryonic gene editing that has made recent news. It should come as no surprise, then, that Chinese scientists consistently precede U.S. researchers in pushing CRISPR to its limits.

Earlier this year, the National Academy of Sciences expressed concern over the possibility that U.S.-based researchers might leave the country for more friendly jurisdictions like China if we continue to drag our feet. Losing such important work could harm more than American patients and aspiring scientists. It could also contribute to a less than ethical development of genetic science in a country with less will and ability to control the truly horrific cases that could potentially emerge.

Instead of painting a terrifying picture of the future that only Aldous Huxley could dream up – and using these fears to completely abandon new types of innovation – scientists, policymakers and educators ought to seek out ethical ways to allow genetic science to improve people's lives.

Discouraging these technologies in America will not prevent brilliant scientists from pursuing them. Instead, it will push them to less careful and less scrupulous jurisdictions, resulting in harm to American patients and an inability to shape the future in accordance with democratic ideals and principles.