CRISPR Opens Pandora's Box
A quick-and-easy gene editing procedure has leading scientists worried.
Conservatives are typically the ones who fear abuses of science, so when liberal academics get worried, there’s reason for everyone to worry. The latest worry involves CRISPR (or CRISPR/Cas9), a recent development in genomic editing that allows a scientist, doctor, or even a lab worker to change the DNA of any organism – including humans. Since changes could be made to the germ line, this could affect future generations. We mentioned CRISPR on May 24, quoting a concerned scientist’s letter to Nature that warned that eugenics lurks in the shadows. That concern is echoed by Anthony Wrigley and Ainsley Newson on The Conversation, and by Wesley J. Smith on Evolution News & Views.
As with any new technology, there are plenty of good intentions. Serious diseases could be cured by replacing faulty genes. Biologists will have a new efficient tool for understanding animal or plant genetics. Etc., etc. It’s the “dual use” potential (harm and good) that has ethicists worried. Genetically modified organisms could be turned loose without knowing the full impact on the ecology. Cells could be weaponized for biological warfare. And the prospect of “designer babies” looms larger than ever. One doesn’t have to look too far down that slippery slope: genetically engineered athletes? Increasing distance between the haves and have-nots? Brave New World?
Heidi Ledford, reporting for Nature (“CRISPR, the disruptor”), says that CRISPR is “turning everything on its head” around the world. For now, the good intentions are in the lead:
The sentiment is widely shared: CRISPR is causing a major upheaval in biomedical research. Unlike other gene-editing methods, it is cheap, quick and easy to use, and it has swept through labs around the world as a result. Researchers hope to use it to adjust human genes to eliminate diseases, create hardier plants, wipe out pathogens and much more besides. “I’ve seen two huge developments since I’ve been in science: CRISPR and PCR,” says John Schimenti, a geneticist at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York. Like PCR, the gene-amplification method that revolutionized genetic engineering after its invention in 1985, “CRISPR is impacting the life sciences in so many ways,” he says.
But the technology is outrunning ethical regulations:
But although CRISPR has much to offer, some scientists are worried that the field’s breakneck pace leaves little time for addressing the ethical and safety concerns such experiments can raise. The problem was thrust into the spotlight in April, when news broke that scientists had used CRISPR to engineer human embryos. The embryos they used were unable to result in a live birth, but the report has generated heated debate over whether and how CRISPR should be used to make heritable changes to the human genome. And there are other concerns. Some scientists want to see more studies that probe whether the technique generates stray and potentially risky genome edits; others worry that edited organisms could disrupt entire ecosystems.
It’s a power that’s cheap, quick, and easy to use, potentially accessible to moral midgets or rogue regimes. “We should think carefully about how we are going to use that power,” a systems biologist at Stanford warns. Evil is not the only concern. A well-meaning but poorly-trained student could overlook safety protocols and create a lab emergency, releasing deadly viruses or bacteria to coworkers. With recent news that the Department of Defense mistakenly shipped live anthrax cultures to 51 labs in 17 states over the last 10 years (CNN), can we trust government regulators to protect citizens?
And yet CRISPR is so cool. A scientist can accomplish quickly what used to take painstaking work. One scientist said he was “depressed… but also excited” over the technology. And the funding is beginning to flow. Patents are being filed. Competition can lead to lapses in judgment in the race to be first. What ethicist can be heard over the noise of this new gold rush? More scientists are being bitten by “the CRISPR bug,” Nature says. One scientist so affected remarked, “It’s really spectacular.”
Nature points out that there are many unanswered questions. Sometimes a worker cuts out and replaces a gene other than the one he intended, or the change results in other pleiotropic effects in other parts of the genome. One lab has “seen off-target sites with mutation frequencies ranging from 0.1% to more than 60%.” Such mistakes could lead to cancer rather than a cure.
CRISPR is also just on the cusp of raising new concerns about GMO foods. Some biologists envision GM ecosystems, in which edited genes spread rapidly through a population, much faster than mutations can spread naturally. While that might be hopeful for wiping out disease genes in mosquitoes, mistakes can be made—and the changes could be irreversible.
Current Biology weighs in on the controversy:
A recently discovered gene editing tool raises the possibility of precisely targeted changes to human genes, even in the germline. The nascent debate over the ethics and limitations of its use has already been overtaken by events. Is this a whole new Pandora’s box for bioethics? Michael Gross investigates.
Gross spends half his paper describing the history of the gene-editing tool, which adapts a natural anti-viral editing enzyme in bacteria. Then he talks about applications for somatic cell editing, such as replacing faulty blood cells with corrected ones. He acknowledges safety issues even with this application that is “less questionable on ethical grounds” among the concerns. The real worry is about germ-line editing. Michael Gross lays it out in plain English:
The envisioned manipulations of somatic cells and in vitro cell cultures may not raise many concerns at the current state of bioethical debates. What did cause a big stir, however, was the more troubling possibility that the new editing tool might be applied to the germline and thus alter the genes of future generations. Germline manipulation has been a fundamental taboo so far — but one that was easily policed as long as there was no promising technology with which to manipulate the germline.
Now the situation is entirely different. The technology that might one day lead to designer babies as envisioned in the film GATTACA is on the table, and it will be impossible to uninvent it.
The lid to that Pandora’s Box is already open a crack. Several labs have been experimenting with germline editing, leading the International Society for Stem Cell Research (ISSCR) to call for a moratorium on human germline editing. Nature published a comment also calling for a moratorium, arguing that other methods are adequate for human therapeutic applications. A group of scientists led partly by David Baltimore (Nobel laureate) similarly called for a moratorium last January:
The authors called for further research to address questions like the likelihood of off-target modifications and the physiological effects in cells after gene editing. They recommended to “strongly discourage, even in the countries with lax jurisdictions where it might be permitted, any attempts at germline genome modification for clinical application in humans, while societal, environmental, and ethical implications of such activity are discussed among scientific and governmental organizations.” However, this group left the door open for scientists to embark on germline modification in the future, if safety, transparency, and public trust can be maintained.
But do such initiatives have teeth? Two weeks later, Chinese researchers announced they had edited human embryos. It doesn’t matter that they took precautions to insure the embryos would not be viable. And it doesn’t matter that only 4 of 28 editing attempts partially succeeded. Improvements in the technology are sure to come. Then what?
While the Chinese paper shows that designer babies are not going to be born soon, it has also alerted the world to the realisation that, once the technical issues are resolved, it may be impossible to police a global ban on germline modifications. Even if most of us don’t want to live in a world of genetically optimised offspring as described in GATTACA, the impact of technological progress may already be driving us in that direction.
In other words, the scientific community has no clout, and even if it did, it’s already too late. Gross’s final sentence is chilling:
Pandora’s box has been cast wide open, and we, as a civilisation, now face the challenge of deciding how we are going to deal with its content.
Welcome to Brave New World. Have a nice day.
We shouldn’t be Luddites here. CRISPR technology has tremendous potential for good as well as evil. We can all rejoice at the prospect of new medical treatments for victims of genetic diseases. Undoubtedly many scientists are sincerely excited to have powerful tools at their disposal for helping people. The technology is not the problem; it’s the inherently evil heart of fallen man.
The free world cannot police North Korea, Iran, or China. They will care little about what some international council says, or what some panel of Nobel Prize winners recommends. Who knows what experiments their scientists are working on right now?
The world has opened other Pandora’s Boxes, and yet has survived. Prophets of doom worried that nuclear proliferation would inevitably lead to the extinction of all life on the planet. Yet 70 years after the first bomb, Earth survives, even with rogue regimes in possession of atomic weapons.
The first atomic bomb test led Oppenheimer to comment, “Now we are all sons of bitches.” That day, and the Holocaust that preceded it, began to erode the notion that scientists are not responsible for the tools they invent. Will scientists rue the day they turned CRISPR loose on the world?
These are unique times in the history of the Earth. In the lifetime of some alive today, humans have become capable of destroying all life on the planet. This is not to say they will; but they could. Now, the irrational Iranian regime might actually use nuclear weapons to trigger their vision of the apocalypse. Don’t expect any human institution to save us. Where was the UN during the Rwanda genocide? the Haiti earthquake? the rise of ISIS, crucifying Christians, killing thousands, and destroying priceless historical artifacts in Palmyra this very week? The UN is useless for the very problems it was formed to solve. Atrocities continue despite coalitions, conventions, resolutions, moratoriums, and interventions.
Christians have hope in the midst of this present darkness, because we know of a sovereign, loving God. He is on the throne. His Spirit holds back the worst of the evil till the time of His return. We don’t have to trigger any apocalypse; we just wait on Him, who works out His will in His time. The darkening horizon does not cause us to despair, for Jesus forewarned us of the day of evil that would come, promising His return would follow. “Now when these things begin to take place,” He said, “straighten up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near” (Luke 21:28).
The redemption will apply to the Earth as well. The sovereign Creator will not allow man to destroy it. Revelation 11:18 says,
The nations raged,
but your wrath came,
and the time for the dead to be judged,
and for rewarding your servants, the prophets and saints,
and those who fear your name,
both small and great,
and for destroying the destroyers of the earth.
Till that day, the Christ-follower’s task is to be salt and light, holding back the evil (including misuse of CRISPR), speaking up for righteousness, opposing evil, and bringing as many as we can into the kingdom of God with us, by sharing the good news of Jesus.