Imagine the potential for modifying human genes. Start small, and imagine curing genetically inherited diseases. Then picture children resistant to certain diseases, or a human race entirely tolerant of lactose. But also imagine children designed for superior intelligence. Or, to take another leap toward the fantastical, children designed to perceive infrared light, tolerate weightlessness or harness the energy of photosynthesis. Imagine kids who glow green. Imagine all the science-fiction-turned-bizarre-reality potential.
These are some of the possibilities scientists, ethicists, legal scholars and policymakers weighed at a December 2015 international summit about new gene editing technology, according a February 12 presentation for the American Association for the Advancement of Science’s annual conference.
In the presentation, “Global Response to Human Gene Editing,” Robin Lovell-Badge from the Francis Crick Institute in London and Françoise Baylis from the Dalhousie University Faculty of Medicine in Halifax, Nova Scotia discussed the CRISPR-Cas9 gene editing tool, its potential uses and its ethical, social and legal implications.
CRISPR-Cas9 is not the first gene editing tool, as Lovell-Badge explained, but it is a technological leap forward. The process is efficient and very precise. It was developed in 2012 and 2013, and since then it has been widely adopted by the scientific community. “Quickly people started recognizing what a useful, powerful tool it was,” Lovell-Badge said. People are calling it the CRISPR Revolution.
But, according to Baylis, the revolution made some scientists nervous. “There was a sense the science was moving too quickly,” she said. According to Lovell-Badge, various scientists began writing essays urging the scientific community to consider limiting the technology until the public and policymakers joined the conversation. The resulting summit came to no definitive conclusions about the technology but gave a tentative go-ahead recommendation to most forms of lab and clinical research — a major exception being clinical germline editing, which would tamper with the genetic material that would be passed on to the next generation — and called for a continuing conversation.
While most of the hypotheticals the summit grappled with deal with far-off possibilities, some of the potentially sticky legal, social and ethical situations could become a reality in the near future. Some edits of the human germline are near-future possibilities, Lovell-Badge said. Take a step back to look at the big picture, and you might glimpse a new realm of ethical debate: self-directed human evolution. With this notion comes a host of social risks: stigmatization, discrimination and widening inequality. These kinds of controversial ideas are why, Lovell-Badge said, “the decision as to whether this should go forward is not up to scientists alone.”
But if you move away from the dystopian, the technology holds the potential for great leaps in medicine and agriculture. Editing the human genome allows scientists to model and treat genetic diseases, and it might allow us to edit the germline to prevent genetic diseases. CRISPR-Cas9 could also be used in work with stem cells and non-human gene editing, allowing scientists to change the non-human carriers of disease, for example, or create heartier, more nutritious livestock and crops. Regardless of their views, most people involved in the debate agree the issue can’t be black-and-white.
“What we’re talking about is probably taking over the evolutionary story,” Baylis said. “That’s a massive issue.”