When asked to think about the many challenges that humanity is likely to face in the next 30 – 50 years, what immediately springs to your mind? Climate change? Population growth? Increasing geopolitical tensions perhaps?

Much further down the list for many of us however, is a very important debate that scientists are having today – the ethics of genome editing technology.dna-163466_960_720

Genome editing

What is genome editing exactly? Well, a simple definition from yourgenome.org describes it as “A technique used to precisely and efficiently modify DNA within a cell [that] involves making cuts at specific DNA sequences with enzymes called engineered nucleases.”

In research circles, this translates as making changes to the DNA in cells or in organisms in order for us to better understand their biology and how they work, and one of the latest genome editing techniques to have gained media coverage in recent years, is CRISPR-Cat9 (Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats). This has enabled precise genomic modifications to be made to plants and animals in an efficient and inexpensive way since its discovery in 2012 by molecular biologist Professor Jennifer Doudna at the University of California Berkeley and Professor Emmanuelle Charpenier of The Max Planck Society.

 

How can CRISPR assist our neuroscientic discoveries?

Neuroscience is an exciting and emerging discipline that seeks to understand the most complex organ in the body – the nervous system. It’s a modern, multidisciplinary subject that draws together knowledge and expertise from many areas of science – from molecular biology to the psychological study of the mind.

Scientists across the globe, including here at the Centre for Developmental Neurobiology, King’s College London, have been using CRISPR to uncover the genes that are instrumental in complex neurological diseases such as schizophrenia and Alzheimer’s.

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Ethical challenges and concerns

Undoubtedly, the possibilities for improving health and eradicating harmful diseases is a prospect far too tempting to ignore, but some scientists have concerns about inadequate controls and the potential for misuse of such technologies e.g for eugenic purposes.

So, how do we balance important scientific developments without harming the pace of progress?

Both online degree programmes at the Institute of Psychology, Psychiatry and Neuroscience (IoPPN) cover Research Skills: Research Integrity and Ethics to enable our students to fully explore such ethical dilemmas under expert, guided supervision.

This module is covered in Applied Neuroscience MSc and in Psychology and Neuroscience of Mental Health MSc  and looks at the nature and importance of integrity in research, plus the responsibilities of the researcher in areas such as research conduct, data management and reporting. It also teaches the basic principles underlying ethical research and the process of applying for ethics approval.