The genome-editing tool CRISPR/Cas9 took off so fast that it left the University of California, Berkeley's Jennifer Doudna spinning. And by the spring of 2014, she says in an essay at Nature News, it was keeping her up at nights.
"I was regularly lying awake at night wondering whether I could justifiably stay out of an ethical storm that was brewing around a technology I had helped to create," Doudna writes.
By that time, researchers had used the approach to make changes to the genome of the Cynomolgus monkey, which is genetically close to humans, and Doudna notes that she had begun receiving emails from patients and their relatives.
"Towards the end of 2014, my unease outweighed my reluctance to step into a more public discussion," Doudna writes. "It was clear that governments, regulators and others were unaware of the breakneck pace of genome-editing research. Who besides the scientists using the technique would be able to lead an open conversation about its repercussions?"
Her excursion into ethics began early in 2015 with a January meeting in Napa Valley on the ethics of germline genome engineering. Since then, Doudna notes that she's given more than 60 talks about the approach, including at conferences, to the US Congress, and to White House Office of Science and Technology Policy staffers.
The pace, she writes, only intensified following the April announcement that a team in China had modified the genomes of non-viable human embryos using the CRISPR/Cas9 tool.
Doudna adds that researchers could be better prepared for discussing the ethical implications of their work, noting that she didn't have any formal education on that front. "Knowing how to craft a compelling 'elevator pitch' to describe a study's aims or how to gauge the motives of reporters and ensure that they convey accurate information in a news story could prove enormously valuable at some unexpected point in every researcher's life," she says.