U.S. wary on biotech advances; gene editing, CRISPR ‘raising urgency’

We can rebuild him; we have the technology--but Americans question if we should in a new survey designed to assess attitudes to modern biotechnology advances.

A new report, based on a survey of 4,700 U.S. adults coming out of the Pew Research Center, looked at a range of views on certain advances in biology, with opinions split on the ethics and long-term problems associated with enhancing human capacity.

When asked about gene editing, the majority of those surveyed, 68%, said they would be “very” or “somewhat” worried about its implications.

The specific concern was in fact from gene editing “giving babies a much reduced disease risk throughout their lifetime”.  

On top of this, the survey also asked participants how they felt about implanting “brain chips” to give people a much improved ability to concentrate and process information; and also transfusing of synthetic blood to give people much greater speed, strength and stamina.

These too were met with wariness from the surveyed group, with 69% saying the hypothetical brain chip worried them, while 63% were concerned over the synthetic blood scenario. Perhaps inevitably, those who identified themselves as religious had greater concerns than those who did not.

At least 7-in-10 adults from the report predicted that each of these new technologies will become available “before they have been fully tested or understood.” Some 73% said this about gene editing, while an identical share said the same about synthetic blood; 74% said this about brain chip implants.

It was clear from the survey that many Americans do not want a Six Million Dollar Man roaming the streets.

Apprehensions about the use of technology to enhance human capacity are not new--just lay witness to Prometheus’ liver, or the pages of Mary Shelley--but despite the advances of the last century, it looks unlikely that Colonel Steve Austin will be leaping over your garden fence anytime soon.

The examples are of course purposefully theoretical, but with a growing number of biotechs seeking to do things like “reverse aging”--which even include those from the tech sector like Google ($GOOG)--this wariness becomes a little more grounded in reality.

Gene editing has of course already happened in embryos (although they were not viable to be born), and later this year this same technology, known as CRISPR-Cas9, will use its cutting-edge gene editing technique in an attempt to treat cancer in a new way.

But this tech, which was singled out by the Pew Research Center (PRC) authors as “raising the urgency of this conversation,” carries with it a risk (in medical terms, researchers are cautious over unwanted autoimmune responses), while there were four patient deaths in a trial just this year coming from another new tech, CAR-T, when it was used with a high dose form of a chemotherapy agent.

All clinical trials and medicines carry an inherent element of risk, but new technologies will be the most closely watched, and as had happened with Juno ($JUNO), will grab the most headlines if things go wrong.

The other worry is that these kinds of technology will be a slippery slope into a future of “enhancement” that go beyond the remit of therapeutic intervention. But the PRC notes that these reservations follow a pattern of broader, almost systemic concern about “meddling with nature,” which are not quickly eased.

What the survey also showed was that many were not in fact aware of gene editing as a concept.

The PRC report said that when asked about their familiarity with gene editing, most Americans say they have heard either a little (48%) or a lot (9%) about this idea before--although a substantial minority (42%) had not heard anything about the possibility of gene editing before taking the survey.

- check out the Pew Research Center report

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