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Ethicists advise caution in applying CRISPR

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    Posted: February 14 2017 at 9:34am
Ethicists advise caution in applying CRISPR gene editing to humans

Ethicists have been working overtime to figure out how to handle CRISPR, the revolutionary gene-editing technique that could potentially prevent congenital diseases but could also be used for cosmetic enhancements and lead to permanent, heritable changes in the human species.

The latest iteration of this ongoing CRISPR debate is a report published Tuesday by the National Academy of Sciences and the National Academy of Medicine. The report, a series of guidelines written by 22 experts from multiple countries and a variety of academic specialties, presents a kind of flashing red light for CRISPR.

But the national academies did not recommend an absolute prohibition of gene editing on the human “germline” if such interventions can be proved safe. This would involve genetic changes to eggs, sperm or embryos that could be inherited by future generations.

For some ethicists, that represents a slippery slope. At the conclusion of a gene-editing summit in Washington at the National Academy of Sciences in December 2015, scientists said germline modification should not proceed. But the new report takes a slightly more permissive position, saying that, if and when such interventions are proved safe, and if criteria are met to ensure that such gene editing is regulated and limited and not co-opted for purely cosmetic enhancements, it could potentially be used to treat rare, serious diseases.

“We say proceed with all due caution, but we don’t prohibit germline, after considerable discussion and debate,” said Richard Hynes, an MIT biologist and one of the leaders of the new study. “We’re talking only about fixing diseases.”

The experts come out strongly against any use of CRISPR for cosmetic enhancements, such as increased strength or intelligence. The report argues that gene editing in humans should come only after broad public discussion.

Josephine Johnston, director of research at the Hastings Center, an independent bioethics research institute, said the only thing potentially controversial in this new report is the “openness to germline modification.” Some bioethicists believe that's a bright line that should not be crossed, she said.

Eric Lander, president of the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard, said of the report, “It’s a very careful, conservative position that’s just a little bit beyond an absolute bar. And I think that’s the right place to go for now. … They say you cannot do this unless you put double-stick tape on the slippery slope so that nothing can slip. That’s a pretty strong set of restrictions.”

Neither Johnston nor Lander were part of the national academies committee.

CRISPR stands for Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats. CRISPR-Cas9, as it is more precisely called, is a natural system developed by bacteria over the course of their long evolutionary history. The bacteria use their own gene-editing system to identify foreign genetic material that has been inserted into the bacterial genome by viruses. Enzymes scan the genetic code for these invasive genetic passages and then snip them out.

Early in this decade, a series of scientific papers described how this system could be exploited in the laboratory for genetic engineering. CRISPR quickly became the go-to method for gene editing, because it's easier and cheaper than previous methods. It can be used to modify the genomes of plants, animals and potentially humans, though experiments with human embryos have been extremely limited so far because of ethical concerns and, in the United States, legal prohibitions.
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