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Genome editing ‘opens can of worms’

 

DUBAI – Advancements in genome editing and biotechnology, along with their implications on society and healthcare, were the hot topics of expert discussion at the World Government Summit in Dubai.

“Biotech is the transformative technology of the 21st century. We are not just understanding our genome, we are editing it. For the first time, we are faced with science fiction-like scenarios,” said Ellen Jorgensen, co-founder and President of Biotech Without Borders, a nonprofit organization dedicated to promoting citizen science and access to biotechnology.

“Over the last summer, the first experiment was conducted to edit a human embryo, and this opened a can of worms,” Jorgensen said.

She explained that people started questioning how this technology should be regulated, who should get access to it and a host of other concerns.

As a member of the biohacking movement that aims to encourage individuals and smaller organizations to study biology using the same methods as traditional research institutions, Jorgensen advocates democratizing biotechnology at the local level through community laboratories that not only teach the technical aspects of the science but also explain how to contextualize it.

Renowned science journalist Jennifer Kahn discussed advancements in Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats (CRISPR), a genome-editing technology that enables researchers to permanently modify genes in living cells and potentially correct mutations in order to treat genetic causes of disease.

Speaking on the wide-reaching implications of CRISPR, Kahn said: “Before CRISPR, gene editing was very messy and there was no guarantee that the edited gene would end up in the right place. Also, the CRISPR revolution is able to work on the genomes of any animal and any cell type, be it the kidney or heart. CRISPR also changed how many genes we could edit at once.”

While the full impact of CRISPR will likely be felt in another five to ten years, the technology has already shown promise in gene therapy, understanding complex disease and advanced drug development, added Kahn.

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