Most Americans oppose using powerful new technology to alter the genes of unborn babies, according to a new poll — even to prevent serious inherited diseases.
They expressed the strongest disapproval for editing genes to create “designer babies” with enhanced intelligence or looks.
But the poll, conducted by STAT and Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, found that people have mixed, and apparently not firm, views on emerging
genetic techniques. US adults are almost evenly split on whether the federal government should fund research on editing genes before birth to keep children from developing diseases such as cystic fibrosis or Huntington’s disease.
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“They’re not against scientists trying to improve [genome-editing] technologies,” said Robert Blendon, professor of health policy and political analysis at Harvard’s Chan School, perhaps because they recognize that one day there might be a compelling reason to use such technologies. An unexpected event, such as scientists “eliminating a terrible disease” that a child would have otherwise inherited, “could change people’s views in the years ahead,” Blendon said.
But for now, he added, “people are concerned about editing the genes of those who are yet unborn.”
A majority, however, wants government regulators to approve gene therapy to treat diseases in children and adults.
Read the full poll results here
The STAT-Harvard poll comes as scientists and policy makers confront the ethical, social, and legal implications of these revolutionary tools for changing DNA. Thanks to a technique called CRISPR-Cas9, scientists can easily, and with increasing precision, modify genes through the genetic analog of a computer’s “find and replace” function.
STAT-Harvard Poll on Genetic Editing, Testing, and Therapy
Based on a telephone poll of 1,000 US adults conducted January 13 - 17, 2016
Scientists recently used CRISPR to repair a gene that causes Duchenne muscular dystrophy and another gene that causes a rare inherited liver disease, both in mice. CRISPR has also been used in human cells growing in a lab dish to correct a gene that causes inherited blindness. While much research remains to be done, the technique holds promise as a treatment for numerous disorders.
But changes to the genes of eggs, sperm, and early embryos would be inherited by future generations and could alter the human gene pool. No one knows whether it is safe or what the consequences of such “germline editing” might be, including a society of genetic haves and have-nots, Dr. Francis Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health, told STAT last year.
At an international genome-editing summit in Washington, D.C., in December, scientists recommended against human germline editing but left open the door to research that involves editing germline genes as long as any resulting embryos are not used to start a pregnancy.
Ordinary Americans seem to agree: 65 percent think altering “the genes of unborn babies” to reduce the risk of certain serious diseases should be illegal. Only 26 percent said it should be legal.
There is even less support for more frivolous germline editing: 83 percent said altering DNA prenatally to improve “intelligence or physical characteristics” should be illegal. Just 11 percent said that it should be legal.
“Preventing an illness by repairing DNA, if that’s the motivation, to produce a healthy baby, I’m not opposed to that,” said James Giammarino, 65, a grandfather of three who lives in eastern Massachusetts. “I think it’s a wonderful way to use science. But parents almost trying to have a designer baby, I don’t feel we have a right to change things like” mental or physical traits.
Sixty-nine percent of Americans have heard little or nothing about germline editing. “If people don’t know too much, it appears to be a very high-risk thing to do, messing around with the genes of unborn babies,” said John Benson of Harvard’s Chan School, who helped analyze the poll results.
But when people are even somewhat familiar with the basic idea of genome editing, they’re less opposed to germline editing. Of those who have read or heard some or a lot about the idea, 41 percent said it should be legal to change the genes of unborn babies to prevent serious diseases, while 50 percent said it should be illegal.
The telephone poll of 1,000 randomly selected adults was conducted by SSRS from January 13 to 17. Roughly half of those questioned were asked about genetic technologies. The margin of error was plus or minus 5.3 percentage points. The results were weighted to reflect the demographics of the US adult population.
In contrast to their opposition to altering genes before birth, Americans are more supportive of gene therapy, a promising approach to treating diseases in children and adults. Hundreds of clinical trials of gene therapy are underway or in the works. A majority, 59 percent, think federal health regulators should approve gene therapy, while 30 percent think they should not.
The poll found significant support for government funding of research on the very thing most people oppose: 44 percent favor funding studies of disease-related germline editing and 51 percent oppose it. That suggests Americans want to see where such studies might lead. Germline editing for improving IQ and appearance is much less popular: 14 percent support government funding of research on that, while 82 percent oppose it.
“I don’t think we know enough right now to alter genes in unborn babies,” said Rosemarie Hopf-Weichel, 81, a retired cognitive psychologist who lives in Southern California. “But I think in 10 years we’ll be able to do it safely, and I’m always in favor of doing research.”
Even when people are unsure about the specifics of research, “they support research because they think cures can come out of it,” said bioethicist and legal scholar George Annas of Boston University.
Americans who have heard or read about changing the genes of unborn babies were more supportive of funding research: 54 percent were in favor, compared with 39 percent of those who had not heard or read much about the issue.
The poll underlined the widespread mistrust of the federal government. When asked who should make decisions on whether or not to allow changing genes before birth, 53 percent said it should be left up to scientists, physicians, and similar experts. Only 9 percent said it should be left up to government officials and policy makers.