Arabian: The Genome Is Under Attack

Congress must regulate genome editing before it becomes unmanageable.

by Kami Arabian | 1/25/21 2:00am

When Aldous Huxley published his novel, “Brave New World,” in 1932, he had no way of knowing that his dystopia — a society in which children were essentially designed in a lab — would eventually become possible. While his readers could take comfort in knowing that the horrors of the “World State” were confined to the realm of fiction, our generation does not have that luxury. In recent years, it has become increasingly clear that commercial genome editing will affect us in one way or another and, if left unregulated, will very likely prove dangerous. Thus far, the advance of genome editing technology has outpaced our ability to produce legislation to regulate its use, so Congress must — without further hesitation — redouble its efforts to keep up.

In the past decade, the world was introduced to a new method of genome editing known as CRISPR — shorthand for clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats. This technology offered numerous advantages from the get-go, most notably precision, efficiency and affordability. CRISPR has been used in a variety of fields, particularly in gene therapy. Thousands of heritable diseases are dictated by a single gene — including cystic fibrosis, hemophilia, Huntington’s disease, muscular dystrophy and sickle cell disease. It makes perfect sense: If we can prevent these diseases with technology we've built, then we should. 

However, just a few years after the discovery of CRISPR, it became evident that our ambitions did not end at gene therapy. This should surprise no one. After all, our species has a long and proven history of hubris. And so, at the Second International Summit on Human Genome Editing in Hong Kong, Chinese researcher He Jiankui delivered a presentation that shook the world: "CCR5 gene editing in mouse, monkey and human embryos using CRISPR/cas9.” In it, He described the process by which he and his team had allegedly used CRISPR to create the first genome-edited humans: a set of twins who were genetically engineered to have increased resistance to HIV. These changes to the twins’ genomes are heritable, meaning they have the potential to permanently enter the human genepool.

Scientists around the world — most notably in China and the United States —  immediately condemned He’s research. He was dismissed from his position at the Southern University of Science and Technology in Shenzhen, China, and a year after the summit, he and two of his colleagues were arrested and sentenced to time in prison. The court ruled that his experiment was a blatant violation of Chinese legal guidelines. Xi Nanping, vice minister of the Ministry of Science and Technology, went as far as to call it "extremely abominable in nature."

He’s detractors warn of the possibility that his subjects — who of course are unable to provide consent to be experimented on — would experience unforeseen long-term biological complications throughout their lives. To make matters worse, since the alterations to the genome are heritable, such complications would affect the subjects’ progeny as well. Additionally, his detractors cite societal concerns — speculating about a divide between those who can afford to enhance their children and those who cannot. For instance, genome editing could allow wealthy parents to buy their children better physical capabilities, a more attractive appearance and a better brain — leading to the creation of what some critics call the “genobility.” However, despite how one may feel about He’s research, it is impossible to deny that a precedent has now been set. The human genome has been edited before, and surely, the human genome will be edited again.

Congress must produce legislation to guide this technology before it becomes too widespread to contain. Genome editing — in a problem that marks all sciences — does not have an inherent moral dimension. That is to say, this technology is neither inherently good nor inherently evil. Its effects are entirely dependent on applications. While Congress has already restricted the use of federal funding for research on human embryos, there is currently no legislation that restricts private researchers from editing the genes of human embryos. Of course, researchers would still need approval from the Food and Drug Administration, but the lack of legislation entails the possibility that research similar to — and perhaps even more disturbing than — He’s can be repeated. 

Through our elected officials, we can collectively and conclusively decide what will and will not be tolerated in the field of genome editing using clear-cut federal guidelines. Genome editing promises to do a lot of good when it comes to therapy, promising to confine heritable diseases to the history books, so an outright ban on the practice would not be wise. By enacting legislation to strictly regulate the commercial genome editing industry, Congress can ensure that future research will be conducted with careful consideration and caution — in the name of therapy, rather than pushing boundaries for their own sake, as He had done.