Medical ethicist Eline Bunnik: “Cutting DNA has far-reaching and partly unknown consequences.”
Eline Bunnik conducts research at the Erasmus MC in Rotterdam into the ethical aspects of genetics and new reproductive techniques. She publishes on the discovery of chromosome abnormalities when a pregnant woman has a NIP test conducted to see if her child will be healthy, she investigates the medical-ethical issues surrounding transplantation medicine and the use of commercial DNA tests. How does it view the developments in the field of CRISPR-Cas and the adaptation of human DNA?
How do you deal with CRISPR-Cas in your work?
“I am interested in genetics and CRISPR-Cas and give lectures about it to students. In addition, I do a lot of research into medical ethical themes. For example, my dissertation was about new genomic techniques, techniques to investigate DNA. ”
Is this technique important for your work and why?
“It's an interesting time. The birth of the Chinese twins whose DNA was modified as an embryo by biophysicist Jiankui He, for example, happened in spite of international agreements to conduct responsible research. The issue is: are you allowed to make changes to their DNA in embryos? Because if you change the DNA in a fertilized egg, that change is then passed on to all cells of the child. The offspring of that child also get the change in its cells. The consequences are therefore very far-reaching and we do not know exactly what the consequences will be. “
How do you feel about adapting embryo DNA?
“I am not in favor of it now because it is not yet necessary at the moment. We have a safe and effective alternative: many genetic diseases can be overcome by selecting only embryos that do not have the disease for placement in the womb. I do think that we should be more liberal in making embryos for scientific research into these techniques. That is now prohibited in the Netherlands. “
Do you think we will use that technique in human reproduction in the future?
“I don't think we will use gene processing techniques such as CRISPR-Cas in the coming years when making embryos. We will, however, see those techniques on a larger scale in the treatment of patients with cancer or hereditary disorders such as sickle cell disease. ”
What do you think is the most promising experiment with CRISPR to date?
“Last year we succeeded in extracting Huntington's disease from the DNA of mouse embryos. I think that is a nice view for people. Because now you have entire families that suffer from such a disease. CRISPR-Cas would not only be a solution for the individual child, but could also change the fate of the entire family. ”
What opportunities and concerns do you see for the future of this technology?
“People like the Chinese Jiankui He, who do things that are not morally accepted internationally, let the population's confidence in this scientific field diminish. I therefore think that researchers should talk more with patients, people with a desire for children and ordinary citizens, to check whether there is a need for the applications they envisage. In this way, researchers can remove unjustified fears from the public, and in addition respond seriously to justified fears. ”