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Changing our social DNA

Aug 05,2017
A team of researchers from the Korean Institute for Basic Science, Oregon Health and Science University, and the Salk Institute have successfully edited genes in the human embryo to repair serious disease-causing mutations.

Their feat of genetic engineering, publicized in the science journal Nature, was the world’s first demonstration of a safe and working correction of a genetic mutation through a technique called CRISPR. Once it passes clinical trials, it could help cure over 10,000 hereditary diseases that occur from mutations in human cells.

The research poses a grave challenge for Korean society, which lacks the legal basis and tolerance for promoting gene editing. The Korean government bans lab experiments on human embryos, and the media around the world have highlighted the American researchers in the study.

Korean scientists provided the original technology, but the team was led by Americans because of strict Korean rules. The study was published just months after a National Academy of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine committee in the United States recommended new guidelines allowing gene editing for dire medical problems.

The regulations are lighter in China and the United Kingdom, while Korea has made any attempts at human gene editing illegal. It’s worthy to note that gene editing comes under Nobel Prize review every year, and the market is estimated to reach $7 billion in 2023. But its progress has been deterred by ethical headwinds.

Many fear the experiments will one day lead to the creation of “designer babies” with certain traits like greater intelligence or enhanced athleticism. Therefore, any deregulation must be done in close consultation with not just scientists and doctors but also the religious community.

Paul Samuelson, the first American Nobel laureate in economics, once touted Korea as a leader in stem cell research and recommended a push in the field, claiming the area of bioengineering and biologics can one day lead the Korean economy. But since the ethical breaches of notorious cloning scientist Hwang Woo-suk, stem cell research in Korea has withered. Japan has instead become a leader in the field. We must not repeat this mistake again.

JoongAng Ilbo, Aug. 4, Page 30