Americans have conflicting views on how technologies that allow human genome editing, such as one that uses the Cas9 enzyme to snip DNA, should be employed.

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Americans are becoming more open to human genome editing, survey finds, but concerns remain

CRISPR, the powerful genome-editing tool, does a molecular tango to cut and modify DNA that is highly nuanced. The same subtlety applies to the public’s views on how best to use genome editing in humans, a new survey of adults in the United States shows.

Earlier surveys of Americans (here and here) have found a reluctance to support human genome editing, with many respondents expressing ethical and other concerns about such intentional tinkering. But the new survey, conducted by social scientists from the University of Wisconsin (UW) in Madison and Temple University in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, found that two-thirds of the 1600 respondents thought genome editing was generally “acceptable.” This held true whether the genome modification was in germline cells, which can be passed on to offspring, or in somatic cells that cannot. But that acceptance was qualified, and colored by religious beliefs and scientific knowledge. There was one thing that almost everyone agreed on, however: They want to be part of the policy discussion about what should and should not be allowed.

The survey, described today in a Policy Forum published by Science, randomly presented people with different vignettes that described genome editing being used in germline or somatic cells to either treat disease or enhance a human with, say, a gene linked to higher IQ or eye color. Although respondents were generally open to the use of editing technologies, acceptance depended strongly on the specific purpose and its impact on future generations. For instance, there was scant support for using genome editing to enhance a germline; just 26% of people found that acceptable and 51% said it was unacceptable. But acceptance jumped to 39% if the enhancement was in somatic cells, and only 35% objected. 

Such results suggest that “there’s not a general, broad opposition to this technology,” says co-author Dietram Scheufele, who specializes in science communication at UW Madison. But the survey “does show very clearly that, if you look at germline enhancement in particular, that’s where you see the majority of the of public expressing concern.”

Such concerns are in line with previous surveys that have shown people don’t like the idea of creating “designer babies” or populations of superhumans who pass down advantages to their offspring. But respondents to this survey were more tolerant of individuals using gene editing to improve their own bodies. For example, 59% supported using genome editing to treat a medical condition or enhance health.

But a person’s religious beliefs affected their views. In people who reported “low religious guidance,” support for using genome editing to enhance health jumped to 79%; in the religious, it dropped to 50%.

The researchers also asked nine factual questions about genome editing and found sharp differences in support for both treatment and enhancement based on knowledge. In respondents who could not answer any of the nine questions correctly, support for treatment fell to 32% and enhancement to only 19%. Among those who answered at least six questions correctly, support for treatment rose to 76%, and for enhancement to 41%.

The Pew Research Center in Washington, D.C., conducted one of the earlier surveys that revealed hesitancy, finding that 68% of the respondents were “very” or “somewhat” worried about gene editing. But Cary Funk, a social psychologist at Pew who helped lead that 2016 survey, says those findings “are broadly in keeping” with the new survey, again underscoring the nuances. As Funk notes, both surveys “show that public views about gene editing vary depending on whether the techniques would involve germline editing or testing on human embryos” and that there are “wide differences” based on religious beliefs.

Scheufele says one of the survey’s most important findings is that everyone wanted what he and his colleagues refer to as “engagement” in discussions about genome-editing regulation and policy. He says some of his colleagues have dismissed the need for such engagement because they contend it’s still too hypothetical: Scientists and clinicians can’t yet safely and efficiently do the types of genome editing that are being envisioned. “That argument is faulty,” Scheufele says. “We need to have the discussion exactly because the science isn’t there yet. Once we can do it, the question becomes ‘should we?’ and that should be answered long before we get there.”

The U.S. National Academy of Sciences and National Academy of Medicine in February published an influential report, Human Genome Editing: Science, Ethics, and Governance, that has an entire chapter on public engagement. “The natural question that follows [the new survey] is ‘what kind of public engagement?’” says UW Madison’s Alta Charo, a bioethicst and lawyer who co-chaired the academies committee that wrote the report. (Scheufele was also on the committee.) Charo, who was not involved in the new survey, notes that engagement can mean everything from teaching classes to holding meetings that join scientists with religious leaders, or give the public a forum to express views and concerns to policymakers.

Scheufele acknowledges that public engagement remains a fuzzy concept. He notes that the Royal Society in London has held meetings aimed at improving engagement, but U.S. groups “don’t really have the infrastructure in place. We need a much bigger structure for public engagement or otherwise it becomes handwaving.”

He and his team now are planning to conduct a survey about what kinds of “engagement mechanisms” could help avoid the sort of polarization seen in policy debates over genetically modified crops or climate change. “How can we have those broader discussions without falling into the trap of our values dividing us more and more,” he says, and instead have “a productive discussion that allows us to move forward?”