Scientists Must Consider Implications of Gene Editing

Victor Dzau, president of the National Academy of Medicine, said researchers must consider the ethical and social consequences of medical breakthroughs.

Victor Dzau, president of the National Academy of Medicine.
Victor Dzau, president of the National Academy of Medicine, spoke as part of an event at the Dorothy Betts Marvin Theatre on Monday. (William Atkins/ GW Today)
December 11, 2018

By Kristen Mitchell

A Chinese scientist recently claimed he had successfully edited the genes of twin human embryos to reduce their risk of HIV—an announcement that stunned the medical community.

Innovation is moving quickly, and Victor Dzau, president of the National Academy of Medicine, is apprehensive about the rapid pace of change. The academy cautioned in 2017 there should be broad public input before scientists begin allowing clinical trials for gene editing enhancement of human embryos.

“We do have the technology to do this, but the question is when and have we met all the issues that are necessary to look at implications, whether it’s multi-generational implications, ethical implications, safety and many others for us to go forward with this,” Dr. Dzau said at the George Washington University on Monday.

Curing deadly and debilitating diseases is a priority, but the medical community also needs to avoid creating a market for designer babies—embryos that have undergone gene editing to amplify desirable traits like intelligence and athletic ability. Society has a lot to lose in a world where “perfect” is achievable and desired, he said.

Dr. Dzau spoke about advances in medicine and technology and their impacts on health, policy and society as part of an event hosted by the GW School of Nursing’s Center for Health Policy and Media Engagement. It was the latest installment in the center’s Health Policy Leadership Lecture Series, put on in coordination with the Milken Institute School of Public Health and the School of Medicine and Health Sciences.

Y. Tony Yang, a professor of health services and a policy researcher at GW Nursing, said the National Academy of Medicine’s guidance plays a critical role in shepherding medical innovation. As technology accelerates, the academy is helping tackle one of the most important issues in our society: improving health care.

“Technology has played and will play an important role in many aspects of health care systems,” Dr. Yang said. “It offers new and better ways to address the key health care issues going forward with far-reaching, ethical, legal, social and policy implications.”

Pamela Jeffries, dean of GW Nursing, opened the event and welcomed Dr. Dzau to the university.  

The medical community must consider the implications of increased automation in health care, Dr. Dzau said. Some see automation and artificial intelligence (AI) as the next frontier of medicine, but removing humans from the health care decision-making process could have negative consequences. Individuals could be erroneously denied treatment, and the lack of human involvement could result in social problems.

There are also privacy concerns about how medical data is managed in the modern era.

There are a ballooning number of unregulated health-related apps that could potentially put an individual’s privacy at risk. Despite these qualms, Dr. Dzau believes, artificial intelligence could also make health care more patient-oriented.

“It is my dream that maybe AI can be used as an assistant to clinical decisions that actually involve doctors who don’t have to memorize everything and look up everything, and that huge amount of medical literature information would be helping physicians and nurses who make decisions, freeing them up for more time for compassionate care and patient judgement,” he said. “That would be a great thing to have.”

Deans and academic leaders should start thinking about how to retool curriculum for students in health-oriented fields in order to prepare for that possibility, Dr. Dzau said.

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