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International Summit To Debate Editing Human DNA


Hundreds of scientists from around the world are gathering in Washington, D.C. today for what some say could be a historic meeting. They are attending an international summit to debate one of the most controversial subjects in science today, editing human DNA. NPR's health correspondent, Rob Stein, joins us now to explain what this is all about. Rob, good morning.

ROB STEIN, BYLINE: Good morning, Linda.

WERTHEIMER: Now, this sounds like an unusual meeting. What's on the agenda?

STEIN: Yeah, it is an unusual meeting. It's called the International Summit on Human Gene Editing. And it's being sponsored by the top scientific organizations from three countries, the U.S., the U.K. and China. And as the name suggests, the purpose of the meeting is to get together and debate whether and how scientists should be able to edit human DNA.

WERTHEIMER: Haven't scientists been doing this kind of thing, making changes in human DNA?

STEIN: Yes. What's new is that recently, scientists developed some new techniques that are really considered to be game changers. And these techniques allow scientists to make very precise changes in DNA, including human DNA, much more easily and much more quickly, which allows many more scientists to do this for many more things.

WERTHEIMER: So easier-to-edit DNA, including human DNA, obviously one of the things we know about science is if you can, you will. So what does this mean?

STEIN: Yeah, absolutely. And the reason scientists are excited about this is they think it could allow them to do some really good things, like potentially find new ways to prevent and treat many human diseases. But it could also allow them to do some things that are making some people very nervous. And the thing that's probably the most controversial is it would allow them to make changes in DNA in human sperm, human eggs and human embryos. And that's extremely controversial.

WERTHEIMER: Well, now, what would be a good reason to do that?

STEIN: Well, scientists think they could get some really important insights into basic human biology, human development, maybe lead to new ways to treat infertility. And maybe it could lead to ways to eliminate some terrible genetic diseases that have been passed down through generations. But making changes in DNA and human eggs, sperm or embryos has always been considered off-limits, taboo. And the reason is - is that when you make those kinds of changes they can be passed down for generations. And the worry is that you could make some sort of mistake and maybe create a new disease and essentially mess up the human gene pool.

WERTHEIMER: Is that the only concern?

STEIN: Far from it, actually. There are lots of concerns about this. And one big one is that if you allow scientists to do changes like this for medical reasons, what's to stop scientists from making changes for other reasons, like doing what some people call making designer babies, babies that are, you know, smarter or taller or better musicians? And you can see how that opens up all kinds of fears about genetically engineering the human race.

WERTHEIMER: So what, realistically, will come out of this summit?

STEIN: Well, there's a big split in the scientific community right now about what to do. Some scientists are - and some people are so worried about this that they're calling for a moratorium on doing any kind of work in this area until society has had a chance to really air these concerns, to learn more about the science, make sure we know how to do this and do it carefully. But some scientists are saying, look, this is really promising. We should be doing the basic research in the laboratory, at least, to see what's feasible and what's not feasible. Some people are comparing this meeting that's starting today to another meeting that was held back in 1975. That was called Asilomar. And that meeting was held when scientists first developed the ability to do genetic engineering and raised a lot of the same concerns. And that meeting produced a kind of consensus that, look, this technology looks really promising. But things could go wrong. So we should proceed carefully, slowly and with a lot of oversight and regulation. So the hope is that we'll produce a similar consensus with this meeting.

WERTHEIMER: Thanks very much, Rob.

STEIN: Oh, sure. Thank you.

WERTHEIMER: NPR health correspondent Rob Stein. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Rob Stein is a correspondent and senior editor on NPR's science desk.