Drawing Ethical Lines in an Approaching CRISPR Technology Whirlwind
by Guest Blogger,
Tyler Kokjohn, PhD.
Should we trust scientists and governments to set ethical boundaries for research and therapeutic use of CRISPR gene editing technology? This provocative question was posed in a recent Chicago Tribune editorial (1). The potential of CRISPR is clearly immense, but the total scope of its implications cannot be delineated because much lies beyond what even the scientists themselves can presently imagine.
When Kary Mullis invented the polymerase chain reaction (PCR) method for copying DNA (2), it was obvious the technique was extremely valuable. Yet how many of his colleagues sensed this breakthrough would precipitate a crisis of confidence in our criminal justice system? Others soon seized on the new technology and applied it novel ways. The Innocence Project (3) utilized the capabilities of the new PCR-based DNA analysis technology to examine forensic evidence with unprecedented reliability and precision. To date, their efforts have resulted in complete exonerations for several hundred persons convicted of serious crimes. Years earlier when Thomas Brock described a strange microbe living in a Yellowstone National Park hot spring it seems doubtful anyone devoted much thought to its future utility or could have envisioned its role in the cascading developments to come (4). Yet this tiny curiosity harbored a thermostable enzyme that made automated DNA analysis by PCR practical, helped launch a new biotech industry and sparked a revolution that turned forensics and medical science upside down.
Past experience suggests even scientists can fall short when it comes to predicting the full implications of their work. The fast pace of CRISPR research developments already has regulators struggling to catch up. However, new discoveries will supercharge synergistic processes of invention in which unforeseen implications and applications will emerge continuously. Recognizing and coping with the burgeoning ramifications will be an enormous challenge.
Notwithstanding a long history of trustworthy self-policing, the scientific community and vested commercial interests cannot be allowed to remain the sole judges of the proper uses of gene editing technology. Our leaders must ensure a broad cross-section of the public is included in future decision-making processes regarding CRISPR technology. In turn, citizens cannot relinquish their responsibility to stay informed about the issues and help foster reasoned resolutions regarding the appropriate applications and limits of new genetic editing capabilities. We are about to experience a scientific whirlwind in which discerning and drawing ethical lines will become incalculably difficult.
(1) “Editing human genes the CRISPR way,” Chicago Tribune editorial, 27 April 2016http://www.chicagotribune.com/news/opinion/editorials/ct-crispr-gene-editing-northwestern-mcnally-edit-0428-jm-20160427-story.html
(2) The History of PCR. Smithsonian Institution Archives. http://siarchives.si.edu/research/videohistory_catalog9577.html
(4) T. D. Brock. 1997. The value of basic research: Discovery of Thermus aquaticus and other extreme thermophiles. Genetics 146:1207-1210. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1208068/pdf/ge14641207.pdf