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Dr. Suresh Subramani speaks at the latest installment of the Mittal Institute’s India Seminar Series.

Does the issue of ethics apply to all areas of genetics research?

The news is constantly filled with stories questioning the authority of scientists to make decisions about human gene-editing and the future of the human race — but there’s more to genetics research than changing someone’s eye color or other physical predispositions. Genetics research opens the door to profound advancements in food security and public health, the management of which will become crucial in the years to come. 

Genetics Research Serves the Future of Humanity

In India, the work of the Tata Institute for Genetics and Society (TIGS) — a collaborative research institution based in Bengaluru — aims to improve the health and food securities of India. With a booming population, it’s more important than ever for India to focus on its future food sources and the public health demands of its people. At TIGS, current research focuses on developing alternative control methods for vector-borne diseases, alleviating the threat of global antibiotic resistance, developing more robust crops with a higher productivity, and creating stem cell models of human diseases to discover ways to correct them.

But even though the genetic scientific work at TIGS isn’t focused on “designer” human gene-editing, it’s still important to ensure that young scientists learn to deal with issues of ethics related to it, according to Dr. Suresh Subramani, Global Director at Tata Institute for Genetics and Society (TIGS) and Tata Chancellor’s Chair at University of California, San Diego (UCSD). In a seminar in New Delhi in March 2019, Dr. Subramani discussed the growing popularity of genetics within scientific research and innovation, and why ethics plays a role.

Dr. Subramani and Dr. S. R. Rao discussing the latest genetic research at TIGS and the importance of ethics in science.

Ethics and Genetic Risk and Reward

At UCSD, the Institute for Practical Ethics was created to ensure that any ethical issues related to the science of genetics are effectively understood by both scientists and policymakers. “We train young minds to deal with issues of ethics, public policy, and communication in addition to science,” said Dr. Subramani — and TIGS will work on that same principle in India.

According to Dr. Subramani, TIGS is seeking scientists who would be interested in institution-building and leveraging the power of engagement. “We will also debate and examine the economic and social impacts of new technologies and implement best practices to ensure their safe use,” he said. As the Global Director of TIGS, Dr. Subramani recruits scholars, staff, and postdocs, while shaping international policies surrounding genetic research.

In a question-and-answer session moderated by Dr. S. R. Rao, Senior Adviser in the Department of Biotechnology (DBT) at the Ministry of Science and Technology, India, Dr. Subramani answered questions related to the risks of gene editing technologies. During this session, he noted the importance of developing these technologies for our future — but emphasized how scientists must engage with stakeholders and society throughout their research to ensure that genetics research is communicated to the public and key decision-makers the right way.  

“There is an intrinsic risk in everything, and there is a need to approach this very carefully,” he said.