Mason, Stanford researchers join forces to study the science, benefits and dangers of genome editing

Researchers at George Mason University and Stanford University have teamed up to assess the risks, benefits and governance of the emerging field of genome editing. The study is the only unclassified, independent academic project of its kind, said Gregory Koblentz, director of George Mason’s biodefense graduate program and co-principal investigator.

The Mason and Stanford researchers will examine scientific advances in the field of genome editing that can have benefits for human health and the bioeconomy, as well as the security aspects of preventing the misuse of this technology. They expect to deliver a suite of policy recommendations based on their research in summer 2018.

Genome editing allows scientists to insert, delete or replace DNA in genomes of living organisms to induce changes. It is a fast, low-cost and relatively easy method of altering the genetic makeup of organisms. It is possible that those edits could then be passed on to subsequent generations.

Critics of genome editing fear the technology could be misused or abused, either accidentally or deliberately. The Mason-Stanford study will address those issues as well as others.

“There’s never been a balanced, systemic inquiry of the potential risks and the potential benefits of the technology,” said Jesse Kirkpatrick, assistant director of Mason’s Institute for Philosophy and Public Policy and co-PI with Koblentz. “There’s truth in both, but we’ve got to get it right.”

“This technology will have a huge impact across the entire field of biology,” Koblentz said.

The technology may be useful in treating and eradicating disease in humans, developing new drugs, improving crop yields and increasing nutritional value in plants and animals as well as other applications still in development, Koblentz said.

This is the first time Kirkpatrick, who researches the intersection of ethics, policy and technology in Mason’s College of Humanities and Social Sciences, and Koblentz, who teaches biodefense and global health security in Mason’s Schar School of Policy and Government, have worked together on a project.