Dr. Katherine Drabiak fights public perception about gene-editing research

| COPH Office of Research, Featured News, Monday Letter, Our Research

You might have heard a lot about germline genome editing and the wondrous stories of creation and healing that it promises to produce.

But that’s more fiction than fact says Dr. Katherine Drabiak, an attorney and assistant professor of bioethics and genomics at the USF College of Public Health (COPH).

Drabiak, whose work was recently published in the Journal of Law, Medicine and Ethics, focused her research on evaluating the scientific claims promoted by media outlets about the modification of human embryos to create children. She then looked at the science and found that financial incentives and scientific prestige were often pushing germline genome editing, despite safety and efficacy concerns.

“It was being described [in the media] as being precise and efficient,” said Drabiak. “So there was really this disconnect between how well and precisely it works, what the science is actually showing us, and how this impacts federal policy.”

Katherine Drabiak, JD, (front row, third from left) is pictured with colleagues from an ethics workshop on genome editing at the Brocher Foundation in Switzerland. (Photo courtesy of Katherine Drabiak)

Through her research, Drabiak also pointed out how most people don’t even have an accurate understanding of what germline genome editing is because of how it is talked about on media platforms.

“How [genome editing] is explained gives the sense that you can cut one gene out and replace it and it’s fixed, but scientifically that’s not how it works. There are always multiple genes that control how one gene works,” explained Drabiak.

In order to address the legal, ethical and social effects of germline gene editing, Drabiak got the opportunity to participate in an international workshop at the Brocher Foundation in Switzerland.

The Brocher Foundation is a nonprofit that works with scientists around the globe to explore the ethical impacts that new research like germline genome editing poses.

“The objective was to put out a consensus statement on the need for public understanding that this field has been propelled forward based on misinformation and manipulation of the public, and at this point we are concerned about the human rights issues involved with the technology,” said Drabiak.

With this process of developing a consensus statement still ongoing, Drabiak hopes that her continued research efforts on this topic, as well as other projects she is working on, will help inform the public and encourage them to closely examine whether the evidence behind claims of safety, efficacy and risk matches policy and law.

Story by Cody Brown, USF College of Public Health