Asbury is professor of law and associate dean for academic affairs at the Thomas R. Kline School of Law.
For Bret Asbury, it’s not a matter of “if” but “when” gene-editing will allow parents to alter their children’s DNA, at times before they are born.
“The science is moving quickly,” he says, specifically with respect to CRISPR, a technique of reprogramming DNA in plants, animals and humans. “It’s going to happen at some point, and the new question will be, in situations where parents have the option of a fetal genetic intervention, what are the parameters for determining whether to intervene prenatally?”
A specialized region of DNA with two distinct characteristics: the presence of nucleotide repeats and spacers.
A protein enzyme that acts like a pair of molecular scissors, capable of cutting and rearranging strands of DNA.
In a recent article published in the Stanford Technology Law Review, Asbury raised this question in relation to prenatal genetic counseling, a field in which the literature has consistently described a marked lack of precision and helpfulness. Genetic counselors, Asbury maintains, often fail to explain the true risk of potential genetic abnormalities identified in screenings, and they at times push parents-to-be toward termination without giving them a true picture of the possibilities ahead.
With the emergence of CRISPR, the gravity of provider-patient miscommunications will be compounded, he warns. Genetic counselors’ being more involved with patients earlier in the pregnancy, and having a better understanding of statistics, can help.
“When genetic counselors come into the room and give parents a bunch of numbers, they should be more sensitive to the fact that the average person has no idea what these numbers mean. It’s a communication problem that’s easy to fix.”
Already, a researcher in China has claimed to use CRISPR on twin babies. While the technology is a long way from becoming widely available, Asbury says, he wants the medical community to be ready for these kinds of conversations when it is.