Dal hosts symposium on cutting‑edge gene editing science

- November 25, 2016

(Image courtesy of Paola Marignani Lab.)
(Image courtesy of Paola Marignani Lab.)

Cut. Paste. Cut. Paste.

It’s one thing to move around pieces of content in an essay, or a website. It’s another to do so with the very building blocks of life.

That’s, essentially, what some gene editing involves. It's an innovative, developing area of science that manipulates genetic material inside human cells. It’s been researched for decades, but in recent years it’s sparked significant interest and debate in the world of biological science.

Next week, on Monday, November 28, Halifax will have the chance to hear from leading experts in that debate at an half-day symposium held in the Sir Charles Tupper Building (Theatre D) on Dal’s Carleton campus.

“Human Gene Editing: At the Cutting Edge,” organized by the Impact Ethics research group, is co-sponsored by the Royal Society of Canada (Atlantic Chapter) and Canadian Women in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering & Mathematics). Fittingly, the daytime agenda features all female presenters, led by co-moderators Françoise Baylis and Paola Marignani — both faculty members at Dalhousie. There will be presentations on the relevant science, patents, literature and ethics.

“One of the things I think is unique about this symposium is that it is truly interdisciplinary,” says Dr. Baylis, Canada Research Chair in Bioethics and Philosophy. “We have scientists, but we also have others who will be speaking about the legal issues around patenting and about the way in which we might think of [gene editing] in terms of literature and science fiction.”

In addition to the public symposium, the day’s events also include a public screening of the 1997 sci-fi film Gattaca in the evening, followed by an expert-led Q&A panel about human gene editing with Dr. Baylis, Dr. Marignani and Dal English prof Jason Haslam. Topics up for discussion include: the procedures in place for genetic testing and screening, disease control and prevention, the CRISPR/Cas9 genome-editing tool, and associated social and ethical issues.

Considering the issues

Experimentation in the cutting-edge field of gene editing can involve silencing, disrupting or completely removing certain genes that are seen as deleterious or harmful. Conversely, pieces of DNA that are seemingly advantageous to the cellular organism — such as enhanced immune cells to fight cancer — can also be inserted or re-organized into the genetic code.

There are certainly potential upsides to this sort of science, such as combating genetic ailments — but it could ultimately change the human genome and have implications, positive or negative, on other aspects of the ecosystem.

Dr. Baylis herself will be presenting on the benefits of slow science: the approach of methodically engaging in complex academic research at a slower, more cautious pace amidst a very rapidly progressing area of scientific study. Her presentation will evaluate slow science from an ethical point of view, particularly in the context of the CRISPR/Cas9 gene-editing technology and research involving human beings.

Dr. Marignani, professor in Dal’s Department of Biochemistry & Molecular Biology, plans to discuss a historical overview of genetic engineering as well as the use of gene-editing platforms as tools to assist in answering larger scale, in-depth questions about biology. She says she hopes participants in the symposium will walk away with a better understanding of the wide spectrum of gene editing and the importance of practicing responsible science.

When asked for her thoughts on what she hopes will be achieved from this event, Dr. Baylis says it’s about consciousness-raising.

“Making sure that people are aware of this area of science, what its potentials are, what its challenges are…and the implications. … I think depending on who is in the audience, [each person] will take away different kinds of things. To me, that’s great because that just exemplifies the fact that this is a symposium designed to address different kinds of topics, perspectives and needs, and what holds it all together is new and exciting science.”

For full details, visit the Impact Ethics website.


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