Geneticist and pastor weigh in on gene editing technology breakthrough

A geneticist and a pastor have explored the possible limits and complications of a gene editing technology breakthrough by American scientists which could lead to the prevention of birth defects and genetic diseases.

(REUTERS / National Human Genome Research Institute / Handout)A DNA double helix is seen in an undated artist's illustration released by the National Human Genome Research Institute to Reuters on May 15, 2012.

After the New York Times published a story about how U.S. scientists successfully altered a disease-carrying gene from inside the human embryo for the first time, questions over the possibility of stopping hereditary illnesses and birth defects have emerged. To explore the limits of this scientific breakthrough, WTSP sought the views of Johns Hopkins All Children's Hospital geneticist Dr. Maxine Sutcliffe and First United Methodist Church leader Rev. Dr. Craig Nelson.

For scientists, the ability to alter disease-carrying genes could lead to the cure of breast and ovarian cancer, Huntington's disease and other illnesses because they could replace it with a good gene during fertilization. However, Dr. Sutcliffe notes that safety and ethics should be considered.

First of all, Sutcliffe said scientists should make sure that nothing is damaged when they cut into something. Second, she said the breakthrough could be used for the wrong purpose.

"We have the potential, we have the expertise, we have the ability to keep this under control and let it work for the good of mankind as opposed to the destructive side, the manipulative side, or the wrong side," Dr. Sutcliffe said.

Rev. Nelson, on the other hand, said only the wealthy will become healthier, more attractive, and smarter if they are the only ones who can benefit from gene alteration. The St. Petersburg-based pastor revealed that he survived stage 4 lung cancer because of a gene therapy treatment more than five years ago, but he said the crowd cannot just hop on the bandwagon just because it leads to a healthier version of the world.

"When there's a preference that would start permeating culture, then that leads to uniformity. That leads to stormtroopers on 'Star Wars,' you know? ... I mean, Hitler tried it, you know? And where did that get us?" Rev. Nelson warned.

In July 2016, Pew Research Center published results of a survey which revealed that 68 percent of American adults are weary of gene editing for babies despite some (49 percent) of them being enthusiastic about the technology. They are also almost equally divided when it comes to choosing this method for their own child.

However, Americans who are somewhat familiar with gene editing are more likely (57 percent) to say that they would want the technology for their baby. Only 37 percent of those who had not heard about it before the survey said the same thing.