In Paolo Bacigalupi’s masterful 2009 novel The Windup Girl, bio-engineered plagues have ravaged the world while “company men” working for large corporate conglomerates genetically engineer crops and people for profit. Last week, He Jiankui, a Chinese scientist at the Southern University of Science and Technology in Shenzhen, reminded us that this dystopian future is less far-fetched than it might appear when he purportedly created the first gene-edited babies in history.
Using a technology known as CRISPR-Cas9, He — who is reportedly now missing — says he modified the CCR5 gene in twin girls conceived by in vitro fertilization. This is the first such instance of inducing a permanent change in inheritable, human DNA. If He’s claim is true, it marks a definitive moment in scientific and human history: the first time humans have deliberately and permanently altered their own DNA, opening a Pandora’s box of ethical and moral dilemmas. This news is especially troubling given the power of corporate biotech interests to shape the discussion around acceptable uses of gene editing.
The gene-editing technology He used to perform his historic feat — the product of research carried out by numerous scientific groups at universities around the world — is less than ten years old. At the beginning of the decade, two groups of scientists, led by Jennifer Doudna and Emmanuelle Charpentier at Berkeley and Feng Zhang and George Church at MIT, showed that by modifying the naturally occurring CRISPR-Cas system, the same basic molecular components could also be used to edit the human genome (or in principle any genome). What distinguishes CRISPR-Cas from earlier gene-editing technologies is the ease with which one can edit target DNA. CRISPR is so simple to use that there are even DIY mail-order CRISPR kits that allow anyone to “hack DNA.”
But despite its enormous potential, we still know very little about the long-term health effects of CRISPR gene editing. While CRISPR could theoretically be used to block disease-causing mutations in humans, it can also trigger “off-target” effects, where unintended segments of DNA are accidentally edited. Off-target effects are likely to be deleterious to human health, including increasing the risk of cancer. Motivated by these concerns, the National Academy of Science issued a guidance last year that “genome editing of the human germline — adding, removing, or replacing DNA base pairs in gametes or early embryos — could be permitted in the future, but only for serious conditions under stringent oversight.”
The ethical questions don’t end with humans. CRISPR-based methods have also been used to edit the genomes of other organisms — including alarming CRISPR-based technologies such as gene drives that seek to implant fertility-reducing genes in animals (like mosquitos) and release these genetically modified organisms into the wild.
Biotech and pharmaceutical companies are already salivating at the potential profits from CRISPR-based technologies. The development of CRISPR-based gene editing set off a vicious patent battle for the right to commercialize this largely publicly funded and collectively developed set of discoveries, with the MIT group eventually winning exclusive rights to the CRISPR patent. The potential payoff is a market worth billions of dollars. For example, CRISPR Therapeutics, which Charpentier co-founded in 2013, is already worth over two billion dollars despite not having a single therapy currently approved (though it has started preliminary human trials to edit a gene that has been implicated in two rare blood disorders).
The varied reactions of the scientific community to He’s announcement cannot be understood without recognizing the immense commercial and corporate interests intertwined with the CRISPR technology.
Many scientists have been outspoken in their disapproval and unease. Nobel Prize–winning scientist David Baltimore summarized the sentiment of large parts of the scientific community when he stated “there has been a failure of self-regulation in the scientific community.” Eric Torpol, founder and director of the Scripps Translational Institute went even further:
Here you have a scientist changing the human race, and you have a YouTube video about it, with no [scientific] paper. It’s just almost surreal . . . This guy must have just remarkable chutzpah to proceed. Basically for the first time in history, he has used this powerful tool in a reckless way for no good reason.
But He has stood by his actions — and he has supporters. “I feel a strong responsibility that it’s not just to make a first, but also make it an example,” He told the Associated Press. “Society will decide what to do next.” Prominent biotechnologist and Harvard professor George Church (who is on the MIT CRISPR patent and involved in founding companies that stand to commercially gain from CRISPR technology) also defended the research in Science Magazine, claiming that he feels an “obligation to be balanced . . . It seems like a bullying situation to me. The most serious thing I’ve heard is that he didn’t do the paperwork right. He wouldn’t be the first person who got the paperwork wrong.”
Church was joined by the dean of the Harvard Medical School, George Daley, who stated: “The fact that the first instance of human germline editing came forward as a misstep should not let us stick our neck in the sand. . . . I don’t think a single practitioner who goes against the norms of the field represents a failure of scientific self-regulation.” Unsurprisingly, Daley and his colleagues at Harvard Medical School are also conducting germ-line research, with the aim of eventually commercializing it.
Scientists like Daley and Church see the commercialization of biotechnology as the best way to leverage scientific knowledge for human benefit. Like Silicon Valley technologists, they see commercial profit, scientific advancement, and human progress as indistinguishable. Thus, it is not surprising that scientific discoveries are viewed as precious commercial entities that should be patented rather than shared. In the era of “move fast and break things,” being first is not only desirable, but also often commercially profitable. In this climate, He’s actions are easy to understand. They reflect the hubris of a scientific elite, empowered by corporate interests.
Yet there is something very perverse in this worldview. By turning publicly funded scientific research into privately owned commercial entities, we drive up the price of biomedical treatments and relinquish control over scientific discoveries that were collectively discovered and publicly funded.
There is a clear alternative: a scientific commons that is democratically controlled and whose sole purpose is the public good. Creating such a commons is the only way we can generate a scientific culture that acknowledges that the difficult ethical choices that we face must be made democratically for the greater good, independent of personal ambitions or commercial interests.
The era of gene editing has now officially begun. CRISPR and related technologies have opened the possibility of editing the genomes of everything from bacteria to plants to humans. For the first time in human history, we have the tools to reprogram life itself. But we must ensure that this knowledge is used sparingly and only when absolutely necessary for public health — not simply when it’s profitable.
The dystopian future described in The Windup Girl — where scientists sell their abilities to the highest corporate bidder, people are engineered for pleasure, and the world’s ecosystems are ruthlessly exploited — is a grim reminder of just how high the stakes might be.