Carlos Mariscal and Angel Petropanagos argue that we need to pay more attention to the ethical issues surrounding CRISPR, the new gene editing technology.
This week, researchers met in Washington D.C. to discuss scientific advancements in gene editing technologies. On the agenda was a new gene editing system called CRISPR. CRISPR is like a pair of scissors for cutting genes. By using various proteins, it can locate, insert, delete, edit, silence, or express any specific gene.
Whereas previous gene editing techniques were laborious, inefficient, and imprecise, The CRISPR system is easy, fast, precise, accurate, and relatively cheap. It makes gene editing more accessible than ever before.
CRISPR can be used to alter the genetic material in any organism at any stage of development. It could be used on somatic cells to alter the genes in an individual organism and on germ (reproductive) cells to alter the genetic material of future generations.
Public attention fell on CRISPR earlier this year when Chinese researchers announced they had used this technology on (non-viable) human embryos. This was the first human germline application of CRISPR. Reactions have been mixed.
Others worry that using CRISPR on humans leads us down the path to eugenics. By making changes to the germline, scientists could control what genetic material was passed on to future generations, a practice which some imagine could lead to racist, classist, or merely unwise modifications of future human generations.
Since the Chinese announcement of the use CRISPR on human embryos, there have been several calls for a moratorium on the editing of human embryos for clinical purposes, including calls from fellows of the National Academy of Sciences, several German scientific groups, and several UNESCO scientists.
In addition, the National Academies of Sciences organized two meetings, co-hosted by British and Chinese academies. The first meeting, which occurred this week in Washington, focused on the science behind CRISPR.
The second meeting, which will occur in December, focuses on the development of an international document outlining the current science and ethical concerns surrounding gene editing technologies.
Getting clear on the science behind CRISPR is important. So is developing an international guideline for gene editing. But the National Academy of Science’s meetings seem to have overlooked how much work and ethical expertise it will take to identify and assess the ethical issues surrounding CRISPR. We worry that ethics has taken and will continue to take a back seat to science in discussions about CRISPR. We worry that existing ethical frameworks are not equipped to manage new gene editing technology.
The reason is simple: CRISPR is not like previous biotechnologies. The ethical frameworks were developed for dealing with IVF, cloning, and stem cell research aren’t equipped to deal with the novel ethical concerns raised by CRISPR. Here are some examples:
First, CRISPR can introduce novel variations in germlines, making permanent biological changes to future generations. This may be uncontroversial when it comes to preventing life-threatening diseases, but controlled human evolution has been suggested many times since Darwin, often with permanent, racist, and disastrous consequences.
Second, CRISPR could selectively alter other traits such as skin, hair, or eye color. We could soon live in a future in which genetic traits could become commodities or fashion trends. It may even be possible for people to edit their own genomes at home.
Third, CRISPR can be used in any living species, including plants and non-human animals. This has huge ecological consequences. It may be possible to drive a species to extinction or reverse the extinction of other species. The impacts of CRISPR are as far reaching as life itself.
Fourth, CRISPR can also be used for military and intelligence. For example, it could be used to untraceably insert hidden messages in living tissue in order to carry information across borders.
While it may be speculative to worry about such dystopian uses for biotechnology, the scientific scope, possible societal consequences, and ethical import of CRISPR is not analogous to past biotechnologies. CRISPR’s scientific and ethical boundaries are largely unknown.
So when National Academy of Science’s meeting happens in December, the American, British, and Chinese academies should ensure that discussions about CRISPR are not limited to human therapeutic interventions or standard ethical concerns. Nor should the scientists, ethicists, and public policy experts discuss these topics without input from other groups.
We suggest that a team of interdisciplinary and interprofessional experts is needed to identify the potential ethical concerns and regulatory solutions related to CRISPR. More importantly, we suggest that public consultation is needed to identify the range of social values and ideologies that can drive the ethical development and regulation of CRISPR.