This post is a part of our Bioethics in the News series
By Jennifer Carter-Johnson, PhD, JD
The excitement and potential of CRISPR to treat severe genetic conditions by editing disease-causing DNA has taken an unexpected hit. A recent Wall Street Journal article highlighted the unexpected results from a CRISPR study in which attempts to edit a human gene responsible for blindness resulted in the loss of the entire chromosome from the cells in the embryos. These results echo another study conducted in human cell lines published earlier in 2019.
CRISPR is a targeted gene editing process that allows scientists to direct genetic modifications with far more precision than prior procedures. CRISPR has been touted as a gigantic leap in the ability to modify DNA by creating or repairing pinpoint DNA mutations without affecting other areas of the chromosome on which the gene resides. The recent study indicates that the technique might not be as straightforward in humans – and thus neither will be its use to fight disease.
CRISPR Technology – Promise and Problems
The value in CRISPR mediated genetic modification can be seen in a wide variety of biotechnology products, such as genetically modified crops and new biologics. But perhaps the most exciting and most controversial potential for CRISPR can be found in the desire to modify embryonic genomes to remove genetic abnormalities for which we currently have no cure.
This promise of embryonic gene editing is appealing not only because it would remove the condition from the child born from the gene-edited embryo, but also because the offspring of that child would also be free of the condition. CRISPR gene editing – because it is done at the embryonic stage – creates germline mutations that are passed to future generations. In a therapeutic use of CRISPR, those mutations would be cures for often untreatable diseases.
However, it is this very promise that raises many of the problems with CRISPR embryonic gene editing. Much debate has surrounded embryonic gene editing. Until this recent news, there were fears that CRISPR may make gene editing too easy. The technological development of CRISPR in embryonic gene editing is moving at a breakneck pace as scientists around the world are working on procedures. Biohackers work in their garages and livestream the use of CRISPR to edit their own genomes.
Many are debating which genes should be targeted and how fast the research into actual trials should proceed. Most agree that severe diseases would be the best place to start, but should the technology be deployed for cosmetic benefits such as eye color, or diseases for which a treatment exists? The dangers of CRISPR editing are unclear, and there has been an informal moratorium on the use of the technology to create children. Despite that, there has been at least one rogue scientist who has created genetically modified embryos and brought them to full term birth.
International Policy on Human Gene Editing
The scientific research is not occurring in a vacuum. Each country decides how CRISPR can be used in its medical system – both when the technique is safe enough and on which diseases it should be used.
An international commission recently pronounced that the technology is not ready for clinic implementation because scientists don’t understand the full safety issues surrounding its use in human embryos. The commission described some of the potential clinical uses in the future and outlined a basic safety protocol for approval.
One of the creators of CRISPR, Jennifer Doudna, has also spoken out against applying CRISPR too hastily to embryonic gene editing.
Based on the recent studies showing loss of chromosomes, the international commission and other scientists are correct to call for a moratorium on clinical embryonic gene editing.
CRISPR – The Path Forward
The setback in CRISPR gene editing does not mean that the technology and research should be discarded. The potential to change lives is too great; however, the dangers of use with our current understanding are even greater. So how do we move forward with CRISPR in embryonic gene editing? The answer must include balance – in research strategies and in voices.
While the technology is not ready for clinical use, and we have not yet determined which uses would be appropriate if it were available, the science should not stand still. The research surrounding CRISPR gene editing will yield insights into human biology that we cannot predict. For example, the loss of chromosome length in human embryonic cells undergoing CRISPR treatment seems to be different than the response of other species of embryonic cells. And debates about the appropriate use of the technology will allow us to discover more about ourselves as humans.
As we debate the best way to develop and deploy CRISPR technology, we should look to a variety of stakeholders. Scientists have a solid track record in understanding when recombinant DNA technology has potentially hazardous implications. In the 1970s, the Asilomar Conference allowed scientists to put together research guidelines that allowed the technology to be developed without harming public health. In fact, the international scientific consensus not to use the technology such as described above indicates that scientists are beginning that work. Such a moratorium on clinical uses gives us time to understand how to deploy the technology in the safest manner.
Additionally, there is a role for the voices of the patients whose lives could be changed by the technology. Patients may not be in the best place to judge when the technology should be deemed safe enough to deploy, but they certainly will have input about which mutations cause hardships that merit the risk of germline editing. Many of these patients already work with scientists on potential treatments for their diseases. CRISPR discussions may open another avenue for many.
Finally, there is a role for legal regulation of the use of CRISPR. Governments should listen to the voices of scientists and potential patients in drafting these regulations. But as shown by the example of at least one rogue scientist, there needs to be teeth to the moratorium on CRISPR clinical use at this time. CRISPR and its use in human gene editing raise complicated issues and hold great promise as a powerful tool to defeat genetic diseases. The development of those technologies will not be straightforward or without risk and will require more basic science research to achieve clinical efficacy. But with proper planning, we may learn more about ourselves as humans on the path to a cure.
Jennifer Carter-Johnson, PhD, JD, is Associate Dean for Academic Affairs and Associate Professor of Law in the Michigan State University College of Law. Dr. Carter-Johnson is a member of the Michigan State Bar. She is registered to practice before the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office.
Join the discussion! Your comments and responses to this commentary are welcomed. The author will respond to all comments made by Tuesday, December 15, 2020. With your participation, we hope to create discussions rich with insights from diverse perspectives.
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More Bioethics in the News from Dr. Carter-Johnson: Biohacking: How a DIY Approach to Biology Can Shape Our Future; Web of Interests Surrounding Medicines Makes Patient Access Increasingly Difficult; Humanity in the Age of Genetic Modification; Defining The Spectrum of “Normal”: What is a Disease?; Dawn of False Hope: Spread of “Right To Try” Laws across the U.S.
- Marcus AD. Crispr Gene Editing Can Lead to Big Mistakes in Human Embryos. The Wall Street Journal. Oct. 29, 2020. https://www.wsj.com/articles/crispr-gene-editing-can-lead-to-big-mistakes-in-human-embryos-11603983608.
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- Global Gene Editing Regulation Tracker and Index. Genetic Literacy Project. https://crispr-gene-editing-regs-tracker.geneticliteracyproject.org/.
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