Balancing Hope with Hazard: A Way Forward to Responsibly Manage Genome Editing

Ben Wright, Writer on Science and Technology

14 February, 2019

A silhouetted person with the G’s, A’s, T’s, and C’s that encode their genetic sequence overlaid

A silhouetted person with the G’s, A’s, T’s, and C’s that encode their genetic sequence overlaid


 

Since the inception of agriculture 12 000 years ago, humans have been interfering in the genetic process of other organisms. Despite the fact that the double-helical shape of DNA was not described until 1954, early humans bred, fused, and altered plants to make them grow larger, taste sweeter, and last longer. For many thousands of years these techniques persisted but in 1973 change was rapidly ushered in as Herbert Boyer and Stanley Cohen developed a method of slicing and splicing strands of DNA from different organisms.  This gave life to the era of genetic engineering, which over the last 45 years has given us genetically modified organisms (GMO), Dolly the cloned sheep, and through it all a much deeper understanding of the human genome.

In 2015, another turning point was reached with the development of the clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic sequences (CRISPR)-CRISPR associated protein 9 (Cas9) method of editing genomes. The technique is remarkable in the simplicity and effectiveness with which it can copy and modify genetic sequences. Scientists create a small strand of RNA, which is designed to recognize and bind to a specific sequence of DNA. The Cas9 enzyme, which is carried by the RNA, then cuts the DNA in the locations surrounding the bound RNA. Using the cell’s own repair mechanism, the scientists can then replace the missing sequence with a customized set of genes. This technology can, therefore, be used to selectively modify the genes of an organism to cause it to express or suppress a certain trait.

Much of the interest in developing this genome editing technique stems from its potential in the treatment and prevention of human sickness through diseases and genetic disorders. Using CRISPR, it is reasonable to believe that in the near future we will be able to eliminate many of the ailments that have plagued us through our history. Various cancers, degenerative conditions such as ALS, and conditions such as blindness can all become concerns of the past, and immense suffering and loss of life can be prevented.  For that reason, genome editing is one of the most promising frontiers in science and must be explored.

As a result of its immense potential, research into genome editing techniques must not be prevented by governments. Article 27 of the Universal Declaration on Human Rights protects the right to “freely share in scientific advancement and its benefits.”  For a government to infringe upon this right without any criminal activity present would be a gross violation of the rights and liberties of its citizens. The potential for good is such that research should be encouraged and funded, not muzzled. That is not to say, however, that governments should not closely monitor and control the implementation of such technology.

Contrasting the unrealized possibilities of genome editing are the enormous dangers which accompany such a powerful technology. For example, there are many damaging applications which can be imagined outside the medical field. The potential to engage in eugenic practices, for example, is a concerning possibility. As well, great inequality would be created if the technology were drastically advantageous and available only to a select group of people, such as a single nationality or people of high socio-economic class.

There is, therefore, an important balance to be struck between regulation and development of such a promising technology. Nations currently use a diverse range of strategies and laws to control genome editing. Countries such as the United Kingdom and Singapore, for example, use a regulatory rather than criminal approach. They assess the risk of various genome editing technologies and regulate them accordingly. Canada, meanwhile, controls genome editing using the criminal code. The Assisted Human Reproduction Act (AHRA) states that “no person shall knowingly […] alter the genome of a cell of a human being or in vitro embryo such that the alteration is capable of being transmitted to descendants.” Citizens violating these laws risk a fine of up to $500 000 and/or a prison sentence which could reach 10 years. In China, genome editing policy was recently tested when He Jiankui claimed publicly that he had successfully overseen the birth of genetically edited children. It was a shocking revelation to the scientific community as well as the general populace, and the government responded by placing him under house arrest. Under Chinese Law it is illegal to conduct embryonic stem cell research beyond a period of 14 days.

In order to avoid similar incidents around the world, governments must act swiftly to control the implementation of genome editing technology. They must balance the health benefits which come nearer with each piece of research against the dangers of rapid integration. It can not be stressed enough that this technology should not be rushed to be released to the public. In that scenario, it would be accessible to only the few, the rich, and the powerful, these groups would suddenly have not only a material but an evolutionary advantage over their less privileged counterparts, creating a divided humanity that would be difficult to mend. As a result, research must still be allowed to be freely conducted in the field, but should not include the creation of long term change in humans until we are able to process the potential consequences of such actions.

In the meantime, legislators must consult with experts, as well as the public, to urgently begin drafting comprehensive legislation to control the implementation of genome editing. This legislation can not afford to be vague or incomplete, which would only serve to leave room for the exploitation of a powerful technology. The nature of such legislation and what it allows will be up to the public and policy-makers. It is for us all together to decide how this technology will be carried forth to change humanity.  In the meantime, however, genome editing technology is too powerful to be set free but has too much potential to be even temporarily shuttered in the research sphere.