The CRISPR Germline Debate: Closed to the Public?

Biopolitical Times
The full black and white frame displays the backs of an audience looking forward.

The conversation about how to regulate powerful new genome editing tools is heating up as the National Academies’ December “international summit” draws closer.

A Nature editorial on October 14 argues (echoing the conclusions others have drawn [1, 2] as the CRISPR hype has mounted) that valorizing the 1975 Asilomar meeting as a model for modern scientific policy debate is ill-advised:

“When controversy comes calling, rather than asking for an Asilomar conference — which, after all, was closed to the public — scientists should reach outwards.... The world has moved on since then; science must as well.”

Nature continues, “[S]cientists who wish to self-regulate ignore public outcry at their peril” and “the most polarized US government in history… can turn any new technology into a political weapon.” While the editors recognize that ‘[d]iscussions should extend beyond researchers and ethicists,” their qualified recommendation – that this means “includ[ing] or at least broadcast[ing] to, the broader public”– is a bit worrisome. (emphasis added)

Unfortunately, Nature then goes on to malign one of the common entry points for public engagement with biotechnological controversies: “[D]iscussions should avoid unhelpful references to the genetically modified humans in the 1997 film Gattaca.” By cordoning off cultural references, this move in effect erects boundaries to public participation and restricts the debate to scientific authorities and terms.

These views are especially troubling because media coverage of the CRISPR controversy in the past few weeks has focused on anything-but-ELSI news, as evidenced by other recent stories.

Nobel Prizes and Consolation Deals

After a flurry of media speculation, Jennifer Doudna and Emmanuelle Charpentier were passed over this year for a Nobel Prize. But on October 8, the day after the Nobel announcement, Doudna’s nascent CRISPR company Caribou Biosciences inked a deal with DuPont giving the Big Ag biotech company exclusive rights to Berkeley’s pending CRISPR patents on plants—if those patents are granted. With DuPont’s $11 billion annual business in GM seeds and crop chemicals, the deal is a serious consolation prize after the missed laurels.


A thought experiment on CRISPR’s profit potential has emerged, in the form of teeny weeny CRISPR pigs, available soon as designer pets. They were created by the Chinese company BGI to serve in human drug trials, their efficient size being optimal for reducing the dosage required for expensive new drugs. BGI is seeking to develop its capacity to serve customers specifically customized piglets in the future.

Commenting on different research with pigs, Jennifer Doudna expressed her surprise in Science that cells even survived an experiment led by George Church in which his team hacked up pig genomes in 62 locations to cut out copies of the “PERV” (porcine endogenous retrovirus) gene that might impede pig-to-human organ transplantation by taking advantage of “an apparently rare phenomenon called gene conversion”—a DNA-cutting “snowball effect.” Church’s response was cautious; he pointed out the difference between what his team has done and targeting numerous unique genes in the same cell, and noted that he is not confident the method is “generalizable”:


It doesn’t mean that we can now change 62 different genes easily.

The media greeted Church’s work by celebrating the impending arrival of pig hearts for humans, a nod towards the xenotransplantation for which futurist Martine Rothblatt has been pushing. But Ed Yong at The Atlantic argued that this may be more useful for CRISPR hype than pre-clinical research:


When I reported on such transplants for a feature in 2012, some immunologists mentioned to me that PERVs were a somewhat hypothetical concern. ... My sense is that the PERV-less pigs are remarkable less as a source of organs and more as testament to the power of CRISPR.

Undo Buttons

VICE Media’s Motherboard helped to extend the metaphor of genome editing, covering developments in CRISPR gene drives to produce a so-called “undo button.” The article highlighted bioethicist Art Caplan’s advice that:



Regulations should require the development of methods to halt the effects of edited insects or animals should they prove harmful to other organisms, the environment, or humans.

But while cmd+Z patents may be on the horizon, most observers agree that the off-target effects of CRISPR remain a significant obstacle. Unfortunately, some researchers and media commentators seem to be relying on an as-yet unseen deus ex machina to resolve all of the potential consequences of a technology whose effects are far from completely understood.



Ethical, Legal, Social Implications?

And so the sine wave of CRISPR hype, speculative applications, and Twitter-shattering developments has continued these past weeks. The policy debate about how to regulate genome editing also continues, though it often seems to be monopolized by the same few voices.

The Associated Press made a pass at discussing ethics on October 9 under the headline Gene editing: Research spurs debate over promise vs. ethics. The story quoted scientists heavily invested in CRISPR research, in varying degrees of cautious stances. "We need to try to get the balance right," Jennifer Doudna told AP, while George Daley remarked “this isn't a conversation on a cloud,” emphasizing the drive to “move this forward” from families who seek treatment for rare genetic diseases. But in the National Academies’ October 5 “public information session,” Daley emphasized the need to draw the line between “permissible and nonpermissible applications” for CRISPR, clarifying that he was not implying that George Church’s list of protective alleles for germline enhancement would qualify as “permissible.”

Canvassing the social concerns at issue, UNESCO updated its report on the human genome, recommending a moratorium on editing the human germline and that somatic CRISPR interventions be used “only for preventive, diagnostic or therapeutic reasons.” Kings College bioethicists Silvia Camporesi and Lara Marks responded quickly and bizarrely, calling the UNESCO suggestion “undemocratic” and a rehash of “old arguments.” In fact, UNESCO’s concerns — justice, access, the human genome as commons, and the potential for a renewed form of eugenics — deserve the global public’s full attention as we weigh the benefits and risks, known and unforeseeable, of germline intervention into human DNA amid the commercial and political dynamics of rapidly advancing biotechnology.

We have yet to see any real plans for a publically inclusive democratic debate (not like that one) that fully engages the host of social and ethical issues that genome editing manifests.

Previously on Biopolitical Times:

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