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Gene Editing Could Stop Cancer, Diabetes and Bioterrorism: An Interview With CRISPR Scientist Jennifer Doudna

Earlier this week, a team of scientists, led by a researcher at Oregon Health and Science University, published a paper showing it’s possible to alter human embryo DNA to prevent congenital disease. The study shows that CRISPR-Cas9 is certainly powerful. But in the fanfare and controversy surrounding the news, the public may have lost sight that CRISPR is also highly versatile.

Scientists are using the technology to develop effective treatment therapies for a range of diseases, including cancer, diabetes and communicable diseases. Other researchers apply gene editing to solve agricultural problems, counter bioterrorism and clean up the environment.

Since CRISPR was first identified, geneticists have been adapting it in the laboratory as a tool that could be used to alter genetic codes of all living organisms. The study, published in Nature on Wednesday has incited a debate about the ethics of using CRISPR technology to alter human genes, which draws attention to the ongoing public fear that humanity will soon have the capacity to build designer babies.

Newsweek spoke with Jennifer Doudna, a microbiologist at the University of California, Berkeley and co-discover of the breakthrough gene-editing technique, about how quickly the technology is advancing and the progress she expects to see in the future.

What do you make of the findings in the Nature study?

In a way it’s not a surprising study. There’s obviously been interest in the potential application of genome editing to curing genetic disease. Ultimately, if one could do this in the germline, it would be possible to get rid of disease-causing mutations at the beginning of life.

What’s really interesting here is that the study was conducted in a way that could create a path to the clinic, and to establish a procedure for doing gene editing that would be feasible in these embryos. The researchers largely achieved that.

What’s the one thing you say to people to try to assuage their the worries that we’re on the path to creating…

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