Medical Breakthroughs

September 15, 2017 • Volume 27, Issue 32
Can regulators and ethicists keep up with advances?
By Susan Ladika


Jennifer Doudna, a professor of biochemistry and molecular biology (Cover: Getty Images/The Washington Post/Nick Otto)
Jennifer Doudna, a professor of biochemistry and molecular biology at the University of California, Berkeley, helped create CRISPR, a gene-editing technique that can remove defective or unwanted genes from a genome. CRISPR may help prevent diseases, but ethicists worry that it could be used in humans to create “designer” babies. (Cover: Getty Images/The Washington Post/Nick Otto)

The breakthroughs seem like science fiction: editing genes of human embryos to erase disease; controlling a computer cursor with one's thoughts; enabling paralyzed people to walk by fitting them with a robotic “exoskeleton”; using the body's immune system to cure cancer. As fantastic as such advances may seem, however, they are rapidly becoming reality. Yet, medical advances face big hurdles, including steep development costs. President Trump has proposed a 22 percent cut in the National Institutes of Health budget, which funds basic medical research, though Congress wants an increase. Congress also wants the Food and Drug Administration to speed up its regulatory review of new drugs and devices, but some consumer advocates worry that could result in unsafe products. Meanwhile, safety and ethical concerns about certain procedures, especially genetic editing of human embryos to prevent diseases from passing to new generations, are prompting calls for an urgent national discussion on how such technologies should be regulated.

ISSUE TRACKER for Related Reports
Genetics and Cloning
Jun. 14, 2019  Consumer Genetic Testing
Apr. 26, 2019  Manipulating Human Genes
Sep. 15, 2017  Medical Breakthroughs
Jun. 19, 2015  Manipulating the Human Genome
May 31, 2013  Patenting Human Genes
Jan. 21, 2011  Genes and Health
May 15, 2009  Reproductive Ethics
Oct. 22, 2004  Cloning Debate
May 18, 2001  Designer Humans
May 12, 2000  Human Genome Research
Dec. 17, 1999  Embryo Research
May 28, 1999  DNA Databases
Apr. 03, 1998  Biology and Behavior
May 09, 1997  The Cloning Controversy
Dec. 08, 1995  Gene Therapy's Future
Apr. 08, 1994  Reproductive Ethics
Oct. 18, 1991  Gene Therapy
Aug. 16, 1991  Fetal Tissue Research
Jun. 30, 1989  Solving Crimes with Genetic Fingerprinting
Apr. 03, 1987  Biotechnology Developments
Jan. 10, 1986  Genetic Breakthroughs
Dec. 26, 1980  Genetic Business
Mar. 25, 1977  Genetic Research
May 19, 1971  Human Engineering
Aug. 20, 1969  Human Intelligence
Dec. 13, 1967  Genetics and the Life Process
Consumer Protection and Product Liability
Genetic Disorders and Medical Genetics
Medical Devices and Technology
People with Disabilities