This month, scientists in China will begin the first ever experiments on humans using the cutting-edge gene-editing tool known as CRISPR. But as these researchers break barriers in biotech, a new in-depth survey from the Pew Research Center shows the public is deeply suspicious of various high-tech biomedical “enhancements” under development.
The Pew report focused on U.S. public opinion of three futuristic technologies that may soon become available: gene editing of babies to reduce risk of health problems, brain chip implants to improve cognitive function, and synthetic blood to improve physical abilities. The poll found significantly more respondents were worried about these technologies than enthusiastic about any of them, though significantly more were enthusiastic about gene editing than brain chips or synthetic blood.
The study found that for each of the three proposed technologies, a majority of respondents felt that those who began adopting them first would feel superior to non-users. Significant majorities (70+ percent across the board) felt the technologies in question would only become available to the wealthy, would increase inequality, and would become available and start being used before their effects were fully understood.
Despite the American public’s skepticism, however, the Chinese research is moving forward quickly. Scientific American reports:
China has had a reputation for moving fast — sometimes too fast — with CRISPR, says Tetsuya Ishii, a bioethicist at Hokkaido University in Sapporo, Japan.
According to (the lead Chinese researcher), his team was able to move fast because they are experienced with clinical trials of cancer treatments.
(University of Pennsylvania immunotherapy researcher Carl) June is not surprised that a Chinese group would jump out in front on a trial such as this: “China places a high priority on biomedical research,” he says.
While China may be rushing ahead with human experimentation that is viewed as questionable at best by a majority of Americans, though, they’re not the only ones. Despite the findings of the Pew study, and despite controversy over a closed-door meeting at Harvard Medical School in May about synthesizing a human genome, along with other potentially troubling recent developments in biotech, the U.S. is not about to let the Chinese corner the CRISPR market.
In June, a federal bioethics panel gave the green light to University of Pennsylvania cancer researchers to use CRISPR in human trials (though these won’t get underway until after the Chinese experiments). That research is being funded by the “charitable foundation” run by tech billionaire Sean Parker, of Napster and Facebook fame.
“But Parker’s foundation is unusual,” MIT Technology Review reports, “because it says it will control patents on research it funds and even bring treatments to market. Parker compared the tactic to convincing record labels to license their music to Spotify, the popular legal music-sharing service he also is an investor in.”
So, it seems, the steady march of dubious technological progress and for-profit philanthropic enterprise continues, whether people like it or not.