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Researchers and students reflect on ethical questions connected to gene editing

The project “GENEDIS”, which was initiated by the professorship for bioethics and the junior professorship of didactics of ethics at the KU, has the aim of giving students a voice in social discourse regarding genetic engineering to help them develop into skilled dialog partners. The project is currently being implemented together with the Gabrieli-Gymnasium in Eichstätt. Both ethical reflection and didactic processing are core pillars of the project. The initiative, which was designed to run for two years, is being supported by the Federal Ministry of Education and Research with approx. 200,000 euros.

The project participants visited the Helmholtz-Zentrum in Munich, where the students learned from a group of researchers dealing with stem cells. (Photo: Pesch)

Over the past few years, new techniques have been developed which enable profound changes to the genome in a simpler and more cost efficient way compared to previous methods. The “CRISPR/Cas9” method, for example, is a universal tool allowing very precise genetic interventions on plants, animals and humans. It is based on a mechanism used by bacteria to defend themselves against viruses. They make use of a molecule which functions like scissors and cuts virus-spread genes. By enhancing this principle, the gene scissors can be taught to search for a previously determined specific segment of the DNA, dock to the strand and cut out or add a piece.

The relatively easy implementation of such methods raises many fundamental ethical, political and legal questions on chances and risks: Is the so-called gene editing allowed for treating genetic diseases and which risks could result from such use? Is the use of this method acceptable for positive eugenics, i.e. the improvement of an individual genome? Which view of human life does the vision of gene editing convey? “Students are representatives of the young generation that will in future be confronted with the results of today’s research. This is why they form our primary target group”, explains project team member Dr. Kristina Klitzke. In the context of the cooperation with Dr. Kartin Pesch’s seminar in biology, students have the opportunity to discuss the topic with scientists from fields of research in which gene editing is possible and is already applied in experiments – a good example was the field trip to the Helmholtz-Zentrum in Munich. Furthermore, they deal with ethical positions and arguments to develop interview questions for the scientists. In the further course of the project, students will be asked to draft a memorandum outlining their individual positions. As a conclusion, they will organize a public panel discussion involving scientists from natural sciences and ethics.

“The fact that we could win the University as project partner offers the unique possibility that students can approach these current topics in a diverse way because they have the opportunity to engage in dialog with experts dealing with the implications of this development, which often provokes criticism in society.”, said biology teacher Pesch. She went on to say that nowadays, one of the key skills was to form a well-informed opinion on the basis of reflected facts.

And the project participants are not the only ones who will benefit in the end: The course of the project as well as the results will be available as teaching materials and published in a movie after conclusion.