Human Practices

This year for human practices, Tufts Synthetic Biology wanted to examine the practical applications of Cas9 to solve real world problems. Our project’s goal is to facilitate the entry of Cas9 into human cells for therapeutic purposes. However, this technology has the potential to be incredibly powerful, and very dangerous. Many ethical and practical questions are raised by our project, and our human practices seeks to answer many of them.

To this end, we have created a free podcast in order to educate both the scientific community and the public about the issues and possibilities surrounding CRISPR/Cas9 technology. This podcast currently has two installments: an interview with Dr. Jonathan Garlick of the Tufts Medical School, and an interview with Andie Smidler, a graduate student at Harvard Medical School.

Dr. Jonathan Garlick works with CRISPR/Cas9 on induced pluripotent stem cells (IPS) to understand wound healing and create tissues that can be used to help promote better wound healing. He also has a passion for engaging the general population about science, and helping scientists become better communicators, in a field he calls “civic science”. His unique insight facilitated philosophical and ethical discussions within our team about the use of CRISPR/Cas9. We hope that through this conversation we also became better suited to discuss these issues with the greater community, especially in this time when many important decisions need to be made surrounding the use of CRISPR/Cas9.

Through our conversation with Dr. Garlick, we were able to further consider the ethical implications of CRISPR-Cas9 as a potential genome editing tool and how we could be more responsible in our scientific research. The methodology of civic science and reaching out to promote an open discussion of these issues with different stakeholders throughout society, is a crucial skill that we will utilize with our project moving into the future. By approaching our project from a bioethical perspective and creating this podcast, we hope to enlighten both the scientific and nonscientific communities.

Here are a some sample questions that we used to guide our discussion with Dr. Garlick, which can be found in the audio file below:

How far in the future do you see Cas9 being used therapeutically? What do you see could be the most beneficial use of Cas9 in tomorrow’s society? If researchers were to use Cas9 to change the human germline, what potential concerns should be considered?

Interview Youtube Link

We are also planning to sit down with Andie Smidler, a graduate student at the Harvard Medical School, but because of a cancellation, the interview will have to wait until after the competition. Andie is the co-holder for the patent on CRISPR/Cas9 gene drives in mosquitos. Gene drives are powerful tools wherein by modifying a few members of a species with genes that prevent them from carrying the parasite that causes malaria, along with the CRISPR/Cas9 gene, the gene can preferentially spread throughout the population, effectively neutralizing one path for malaria infection in humans. The ability to genetically alter an entire species poses interesting ethical questions that all scientists working with Cas9 should be considering.