What are the general public's reasons for being in favour of or against the use of genome modification for five potential applications?
Overall, 43 reasons for being in favour, 45 reasons for being against as well as 26 conditional reasons for the use of genome modification were identified.
Various applications of somatic genome modification are progressing towards clinical introduction and several recent studies have reported on germline genome modification. This has incited a debate on ethical and legal implications and acceptability. There is a growing plea to involve the general public earlier on in the developmental process of science and (bio)technology including genome modification.
In April 2016, a cross-sectional survey was launched online among the Dutch general public. A documentary on genome modification on public television and calls in social media invited viewers and non-viewers, respectively, to participate.
The questionnaire introduced five potential future applications of genome modification: modified wheat for individuals with gluten intolerance; somatic modification for individuals with neuromuscular diseases; germline modification to prevent passing on a neuromuscular disease; germline modification to introduce resistance to HIV; and germline modification to increase intelligence. Participants were asked to indicate whether and why they would make use of genome modification in these scenarios. The reasons mentioned were analysed through content analysis by two researchers independently. The proportion of respondents that was willing to modify was described per scenario and associations with respondent characteristics were analysed.
The survey was completed by 1013 participants. Forty-three reasons for being in favour, 45 reasons for being against as well as 26 conditional reasons for the use of genome modification were identified. These could be categorized into 14 domains: safety of the individuals concerned; effectiveness; quality of life of the individuals concerned; existence of a clinical need or an alternative; biodiversity and ecosystems; animal homo sapiens (i.e. relating to effects on humans as a species); human life and dignity; trust in regulation; justice; costs; slippery slope; argument of nature; parental rights and duties; and (reproductive) autonomy. Participants' willingness to use genome modification was dependent on the application: most participants would eat modified wheat if gluten intolerant (74%), would use genome modification to cure his/her own neuromuscular disease (85%) and would apply germline modification to prevent passing on this neuromuscular disease (66%). A minority would apply germline modification to introduce resistance to HIV (30%) or increase intelligence (16%). Being young (odds ratio (OR) = 0.98 per year increase), being male (OR = 2.38), and having watched the documentary (OR = 1.82) were associated with being willing to apply genome modification in more scenarios.
Inquiring for reasons through open questions in a survey allowed for a larger sample size and intuitive responses but resulted in less depth than traditional face-to-face interviews. As the survey was disseminated through social media, the sample is not representative of the overall Dutch population, and hence the quantitative results should not be interpreted as such.
Further public consultation and a more in-depth ethical and societal debate on principles and conditions for responsible use of (germline) genome modification is required prior to future clinical introduction.
Funded by the University of Amsterdam and University Medical Centre Utrecht. No conflict of interest.