Gene Editing and Ethics

April 2018 Pulse

One of the most significant and controversial recent developments in genetic engineering and genomics is CRISPR (Clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats), a new genomic editing tool.

While scientists have been tinkering with the genome for decades, CRISPR promises to transform the field of biology – especially genetic engineering – because of its unprecedented precision, efficiency and flexibility. Not only is CRISPR more efficient than current gene editing techniques like ZFN (Zinc Finger Nuclease) and TALENs (Transcription Activator-like Effector Nucleases), it is also much cheaper.

Already the therapeutic applications using CRISPR as a tool for gene editing is promising.

For example, in cancer immunotherapy CRISPR can be used to edit the properties of chimeric antigen receptor (CAR-T) cells used especially in patients suffering from acute lymphoblastic leukaemia. The technique can also be used to treat latent infections with HIV or herpes by removing viral DNA in infected human cells. CRISPR is used in animal experiments to help scientists replicate the genetic defects in humans in the quest to understand them better.

However, CRISPR is also a useful technique that can be employed for human enhancement and the modification of the germ-line that may have unanticipated and irreversible consequences which may harm future generations.

These developments have generated considerable debate among ethicists. From the standpoint of Christian ethics, human enhancement through genetic engineering and the genetic modification of the human germ-line raise such serious ethical issues that they should be categorically prohibited.

CRISPR is also being used to modify animals or insects in an effort to eradicate certain diseases. For example, CRISPR is used to edit the genes of disease vectors like the Aedes aegypti mosquito that transmits dengue fever and a subspecies of the Anopheles mosquito that carry the Plasmodium parasite (which causes malaria).

Although this strategy may significantly lower the incidence of dengue and malaria, it may also have dire consequences to the environment and the ecology. As Arthur Caplan has pointed out: ‘The use of gene drives … also poses a much larger risk to the environment, as they have the potential to decimate an entire species, eliminate a food source for other species, or promote the proliferation of invasive pests’.

Regulatory bodies such as the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHS), an arm of the US Department of Agriculture (USDA), have produced guidelines for research on genetically modified organisms. However, there seem to be a growing trend of deregulation in the US as techniques like CRISPR become more widely used. The European Union (EU) follows a stricter regulatory regime compared to the US that requires extensive risk assessment before any research on transgenic organisms could be carried out.

Although measures are in place to regulate research in this area, the question is whether it is possible to sufficiently control the off-target effects of CRISPR. Is it possible to prevent the unanticipated mutation of organisms that would result in the emergence of an undesirable phenotype?

Related to this is the problem that some ethicists have described as ‘directed evolution’. The artificial mutations that result from gene editing could lead to the emergence of organisms that are alien to the natural ecosystem, which may not have the capacity to accommodate these organisms should their population increase exponentially.

Is it possible to guarantee that mutated organisms will not enter the environment, replicate themselves and in the long run irreversibly damage the ecosystem?

Bio-safety issues loom large in the debate about CRISPR and gene editing.

Gene editing raises the similar set of ethical issues that other dual-use techniques or technologies present.

On the one hand, CRISPR can be used effectively for therapeutic purposes or for research that may result in therapeutic applications. However, on the other hand, the same technique can be used to create new strains of viruses (that can be used in warfare). This had led the U.S. intelligence community to include gene editing in the list of threats posed by ‘weapons of mass destruction and proliferation’ in its 2016 report.

The best way forward is to ensure that proper governance is exercised on the use of this and other gene-editing techniques. In addition, there should be meaningful engagement on policies governing the use of such technologies with a wide spectrum of the public, including religious bodies.

In framing policies, governments should not only consider technical or safety concerns surrounding the technology in question, important though they undoubtedly are. Moral or ethical considerations or objections should also be taken seriously.

Technical or safety issues could be resolved as the technology advances. But their resolution does not necessarily legitimise the use of the technique or technology. The larger philosophical and moral issues must also be properly addressed before policy decisions are made.

More than thirty years ago, the influential philosopher and ethicist Hans Jonas emphasised the imperative of responsibility in the wake of what he calls ‘super technology’. This call to responsible action is even more pressing today in light of the unprecedented advances in science and technology, which only a few decades ago would be regarded as the stuff of fiction.

Our responsibility is not only to ourselves but also to future generations. For as Daniel Callahan has perceptively pointed out, to exclude any humans, present or future, from our moral community and our moral consideration is not only irresponsible, it is also to be guilty of a form of oppression.

Dr Roland Chia is Chew Hock Hin Professor of Christian Doctrine at Trinity Theological College and Theological and Research Advisor for the Ethos Institute for Public Christianity.