Transcription: Jeffrey’s Take: What is the Responsible Use of Gene Editing Technology?

This transcript has been edited slightly for clarity


Hi, I am Jeffrey Smith, the Founding Executive Director of the Institute for Responsible Technology. What could be a responsible use of gene editing?

I propose that certain ways of doing human gene therapy are responsible uses of gene editing. There’s two major types: somatic gene therapy and germline gene therapy. Somatic just works on the individual who gives their consent, whereas germline can affect all human beings going forward by changing the reproductive DNA. So I believe that the germline is not responsible because it influences and damages or changes without consent, future generations.

But even if we take the ethics out of it, the process of gene editing is not reliable. The process makes changes we don’t yet understand. When the Chinese scientist used gene editing to change the DNA of twins that were later born to reduce the potential for them to get HIV, we now know after the fact that the changes he made might increase their vulnerability to flu, West Nile virus and also cause premature death, potentially.


So we’re just babes in the woods understanding about DNA. In fact, even somatic gene therapy – where you’re just working with one individual and they give consent because they have a defective gene – the gene therapy may kill them, and it has. But it’s a different equation where the risks are there, they’re presented, and it doesn’t get put out to future generations.

There are two types of changes. There’s the changes we don’t know about. If everything in the gene editing is successful, there could be changes in other gene expressions, etc. Then there’s the changes that result as the process of genetic engineering is prone to massive collateral damage. Both of those can create problems.

Now, here’s a big difference. Gene therapists pay a lot of attention to little changes that might cause death in their patients. But agricultural biotechnologists, like those working for Bayer-Monsanto, will use the same defective technology to create food and feed it to the population and to create organisms and release them in the environment where they can never be recalled. That’s irresponsible.