Biotechnology offers us vast opportunities to improve many aspects of life, from expanding our food supply, constructing smart buildings and creating sustainable products to curing diseases and helping living beings adapt to changing climates. While such possibilities evoke a sense of hope and excitement, ethical considerations around genome editing must be carefully considered, says acclaimed bioethicist, futurist and legal scholar Alta Charo.
Professor Emerita of Law and Bioethics at the University of Wisconsin, Charo helps organizations understand the complex legal, ethical and regulatory issues surrounding biotechnology and emerging sciences.
Lead co-chair at BioMade and co-chair of the National Academy of Medicine Committee on Emerging Science, Technology and Innovation, Professor Charo has been advising multinational organizations and governments for decades, helping them establish ethical guidelines in such areas as reproductive technologies, vaccines, pharmaceutical development, public health, food engineering, sustainability and stem cell research. In March 2021, she concluded a fellowship focused on global biosecurity at the Nuclear Threat Initiative.
“Human genome editing holds tremendous promise for understanding, treating or preventing many devastating genetic diseases, and for improving treatment of many other illnesses,” said Charo when commenting on a National Academy of Medicine report on genome editing. “However, genome editing to enhance traits or abilities beyond ordinary health raises concerns about whether the benefits can outweigh the risks, and about fairness if [the technology is] available only to some people.”
As a policy and legal advisor to the U.S. Congressional Office of Technology Assessment, the Office of the Commissioner at the Food and Drug Administration and the National Bioethics Commission, Charo has served as a bridge between groups of scientists, business leaders and politicians with divergent views, helping them find a way forward that’s responsible and beneficial.
Her expertise and insights are relevant to decision makers in a variety of sectors: she helps law firms understand novel legal issues around biotechnology; brings investment advisors up to speed on companies developing emerging technologies; discusses the ethical issues of clinical trials and drug access with pharmaceutical firms; consults on the medical and environmental applications of gene therapy and genome editing; and enlightens companies on options for shifting to sustainable business models.
Charo’s passion for finding the sweet spot between creative innovation and socially responsible applications has earned her the respect of peers and organizational leaders around the world. She sits on several important advisory boards and committees and was elected to the National Academy of Medicine, the American Association for the Advancement of Science and the American Academy of Arts & Sciences. That stellar reputation also led to her being featured in the NOVA documentary “Human Nature.”
“I began my career with a desire to combine science with social activism,” says Charo, who considers herself a techno-optimist. “My job is to help companies understand the ripple effects of their decisions on society and point them toward responsible practices.”