WASHINGTON — Most Americans say it would be OK to use gene-editing technology to create babies protected against a variety of diseases — but a new poll shows they’d draw the line at changing DNA so children are born smarter, faster or taller.

A month after startling claims of the births of the world’s first gene-edited babies in China, the poll by The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research finds people are torn between the medical promise of a technology powerful enough to alter human heredity and concerns over whether it will be used ethically.

Jaron Keener, a 31-year-old exhibit designer at Pittsburgh’s Carnegie Museum of Natural History, said he’s opposed to “rich people being able to create designer babies.”

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But like the majority of Americans, Keener would support gene editing in embryos to prevent incurable diseases. His mother has lupus, an inflammatory disease that may have both environmental and genetic triggers.

Lupus has been “a looming presence my entire life. I’ve been around somebody with a chronic illness and I’ve seen the toll that has taken, not just on her life, but the life of my family,” he said.

Gene editing is like a biological cut-and-paste program, letting scientists snip out a section of DNA to delete, replace or repair a gene. Altering adult cells would affect only the patient being treated.

But editing genes in eggs, sperm or embryos would alter the resulting child in ways that can be passed to future generations — a step with such profound implications that international science guidelines say it shouldn’t be tested in human pregnancies until more lab-based research determines it’s safe to try.

The AP-NORC poll shows about 7 in 10 Americans favor one day using gene-editing technology to prevent an incurable or fatal disease a child otherwise would inherit, such as cystic fibrosis or Huntington’s disease.

Roughly two-thirds of Americans also favor using gene editing to prevent a child from inheriting a non-fatal condition such as blindness, and even to reduce the risk of diseases that might develop later in life, such as cancers.

Side effects are possible, such as a gene-editing attempt that accidentally alters the wrong DNA spot, and the poll finds 85 percent think that risk is at least somewhat likely.

But about 7 in 10 Americans oppose using gene editing to alter capabilities such as intelligence or athletic talent, and to alter physical features such as eye color or height.

The poll highlights that if gene editing of embryos ever moves into fertility clinics, there will be some hard choices about what non-fatal disorders should qualify, said Columbia University bioethicist Dr. Robert Klitzman. What if scientists could pinpoint genes involved with depression or autism or obesity — would they be OK to edit?

“It’s one thing to look at the extremes of fatal diseases versus cosmetic things, but in the middle are going to be these very different issues,” Klitzman said.

The reported gene editing in China — using a technology called CRISPR — was an attempt to create babies resistant to HIV infection, a target that many scientists in the U.S. and elsewhere decried because there are effective ways to prevent infection with the AIDS virus.

The poll shows most people think it is at least somewhat likely that gene editing could wipe out certain inherited diseases and lead to other medical advances.

Yet despite the medical enthusiasm, more Americans oppose than favor government funding for testing on human embryos to develop gene-editing technology — 48 percent to 26 percent. About another quarter of the population takes no stand.

Without that research, how could gene editing ever become a choice for families hoping to avoid a disease?
“That’s a good question,” said Keener, the Pittsburgh museum worker, who opposes such funding for fear that research would lead to designer babies rather than fighting disease.

“If there would be a way to narrow the scope of research, I would be OK with government funding,” he said. “I just don’t have a lot of confidence people wouldn’t use it for their own gain.”

Indeed, the poll uncovers a lack of trust in science: About a third think this kind of gene editing will be used before it’s adequately tested, as many scientists say happened in China. Nearly 9 in 10 people think the technology will be used for unethical reasons, including 52 percent who say this is very likely to happen.

And roughly three-quarters of Americans say gene editing probably wouldn’t be affordable for the average person — raising the specter of certain genetic diseases becoming a problem only for the poor.

“People appear to realize there’s a major question of how we should oversee and monitor use of this technology if and when it becomes available,” said Columbia’s Klitzman. “What is safe enough? And who will determine that? The government? Or clinicians who say, ‘Look, we did it in Country X a few times and it seems to be effective.'”

The AP-NORC poll of 1,067 adults was conducted Dec. 13-16 using a sample drawn from NORC’s probability-based AmeriSpeak Panel, which is designed to be representative of the U.S. population. The margin of sampling error for all respondents is plus or minus 4.1 percentage points.

Respondents were first selected randomly using address-based sampling methods, and later interviewed online or by phone.

AP reporters Carla K. Johnson in Seattle and Hannah Fingerhut in Washington contributed to this report.

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  • A skeptic must question the validity of the survey findings given the known shallow understanding of how science works to determine and measure outcomes.

    Further, the designers of the survey likely worded its queries to reflect bias toward the subject matter. For example, the opposition of religious fanatics to perform scientific studies using human embryos evidently has been given a voice in this survey. This bias will skew survey results, thereby making them less valid for rational decision-making.

    Overall, however, a farseeing individual will observe that the genie has been let out of the bottle. Nothing now can stop gene-editing of the human genome to prevent serious disease and disorder among future humans.

    If the U.S. does not engage in the science and development of responsible gene-editing, then it will miss an opportunity while others go forward with this biological modification, notwithstanding the religious fanatics.

    This citizen sees high value in gene-editing even if confined only to prevention of disease and disorder. After all, this procedure could eliminate the disturbing disorder of homosexuality at last. This scourge and the ancient rejection of it would disappear from human conduct. The awful suffering from this aliment would end.

    One could argue as well that adult sex crimes against underage others arise from a gene-set predisposing the one having it to commit these sex crimes. This argument presupposes a lack of any positive usefulness to society of pederasty and pedophilia.

    This subject will become touchy as to where to draw a line because a significant fraction of young females prefers a relationship with an older man. A mere social objection to this female inclination should not govern its existence and operation.

    A guiding foundation for analysis to apply to the scope of gene-editing could identify how this procedure promotes human adaption to change as part of natural selection. This approach would limit if not eliminate lawmaking for spurious aims outside a general scheme for human benefit.

    Gene-editing for desirable and useful outcomes affecting the human condition will happen. The direction and application of this procedure will beg some rational control and careful regulation so as to avoid harmful, useless, unsafe, arbitrary, and faddish attractions.

  • To my humble knowledge, no CRSPR-versed scientists have actually checked the CRSPR-ed twin girls. This needs to happen FIRST and FAST, in order to establish true merit and effect, as also to verify absence of detrimental results / flaws of the gene alterations. The merits are foreseeable and hoped-for, but this technology is in baby-shoes, and needs pampering. Until the facts about these CRSPR little humans are known, and until subsequent random CRSPR-ing is forbidden / unlawful : genetic modification of embryos remains a Wild-Wild-West activity. No-one in his / her right mind should support Mr. He’s work, and until his work is fully checked, this man should be in jail. No matter how great the potential benefits, Mr. He overstepped all ethical boundaries. I am not religious, but even I would say : how did He dare to play God ?!

    • The moralists will have their say, and so will the Chicken Littles. To defeat them and other alarmists, one only has to pose a simple question: How many mothers and fathers will favor their offspring arriving to life free of the most harmful disorders and diseases? This kind of question answers itself.

      One could ask another question for guidance: Would not budget-makers welcome technology that cuts spending for expensive treatments of newborns resulting from their flawed genes? This question too answers itself.

      The undertakings of science will continue their operation toward human betterment despite diehard critics.

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