Last Week in Tech Policy #55: CRISPR Possibilities and Concerns

(by Trey Reed, Colorado Law 2L)

CRISPR Cas9, a gene editing software, is increasingly being used by researchers to modify the genetic code of organisms. Recently, scientists from Spain have found the genetic sequence that produces most of the gluten in wheat. They removed this sequence and produced wheat with 85% reduced gluten toxicity. In the United Kingdom, scientists have found a gene (OCT4) that, if absent, causes the embryo to fail to implant correctly which leads to a miscarriage in the early stages of pregnancy. By ensuring that this gene is present, doctors can help in vitro fertilization pregnancies survive. Scientists in the United States received permission to begin testing on human embryos this past July.

From taking the gluten out of wheat, to preventing miscarriages, the possibilities are almost endless. However, while the possibilities are staggering, the ethical considerations are also large.

In order to find the gene that leads to miscarriages, the researchers had to run tests on human embryos. This involved fertilizing human eggs in vitro with sperm that carried the affected DNA sequence and then editing the genetic material of the resulting embryo. They found that the embryo had no negative effects and the condition was eliminated by the process. The embryos were then destroyed before they were more than a few days old.

Human testing is fairly controversial regardless of the method, but editing the genetic code of human embryos and then “killing” them has received a large amount of criticism, much as stem cell research has in recent years. The ethical issues don’t stop at killing human embryos, given that the real benefit of the change does not occur until the embryos grow up. In the near future it will likely be possible to use CRISPR to prevent genetic diseases such as Down Syndrome and cystic fibrosis.

Controversy also flows from using CRISPR to prevent conditions such as blindness or deafness. Development of Deaf Identity An Ethnographic Study looks at how many deaf people see their condition as part of their identity rather than a disability. These people will likely oppose the prevention of their condition, because by preventing it, parents are essentially labeling it as something that is unwanted and negative rather than embracing it as a part of their child’s identity.

Along with the power to prevent certain diseases and conditions, CRISPR may offer parents the ability to produce “designer babies”. If parents can use CRISPR to prevent certain genetic diseases, will parents be able to define certain traits that they want in their children? Parents could modify the DNA of a child so that it will be a male with brown hair and blue eyes, or be 6’4” and be athletically gifted.

CRISPR could also be used to create genetic diseases rather than to prevent them. Much like the modification so that cells will produce OCT4, modifications can be made so that the sperm cannot fertilize the egg.  Scientists are already using CRISPR to fight the Zika virus from being spread by mosquito populations. They have edited the mosquito DNA so that all the female mosquitoes with the gene are sterile and therefore the population quickly dies out. By further editing the DNA, they have made this a “super-Mendelian gene” that will spread through mosquito populations faster than a normal dominant trait can. The super dominant gene can spread to almost 99% of the population within 10 generations. If left unchecked, the altered DNA could potentially wipe out the species by preventing them from being able to reproduce. Although this seems like a potential fix to a problem in mosquito populations, there is also the threat that CRISPR can be used as a weapon against humans. Last year, the U.S. director of national intelligence labeled CRISPR as a potential Weapon of Mass Destruction due to fears that it could be easily misused to cause catastrophic damage to the human race either by altering human DNA or by creating a super disease and using it as a bio-weapon.

There is great potential for CRISPR as a beneficial and powerful tool for humanity, but there is a great risk involved in its use. Scientists are still a good way away from creating designer babies and bio-weapons with this technology, but people should start to ask the question of if and how we should use this technology rather than if we can use this technology.


Questions and Afterthoughts:

  • Should genetic testing be allowed on human embryos? Animals, insects, and plants?
  • Should genetic modification be allowed to prevent conditions such as deafness, blindness, or dwarfism? Down’s Syndrome and Cystic Fibrosis?
  • Should parents be able to use CRISPR to determine physical attributes of their children such as hair/eye/skin color?