The past eight years have seen massive strides
forward for the field of genome editing, thanks to a new technology known as
CRISPR. This newfound ability to edit humanity’s genetic code provides both
profound opportunities for human betterment and difficult ethical questions
about how far the technology should be permitted to go. Kevin Davies and I
recently discussed these questions on an episode of Political Economy.
Kevin is the executive editor of The CRISPR Journal and the founding editor of Nature Genetics. He is also the author of several books, including the recently released “Editing Humanity: The CRISPR Revolution and the New Era of Genome Editing.”
Below is an abbreviated transcript of our conversation. You can read our full discussion here. You can also subscribe to my podcast on Apple Podcasts or Stitcher, or download the podcast on Ricochet.
Your book’s title refers to the “CRISPR revolution.” How
far along are we in this revolution?
CRISPR has only been around as a
technology for editing DNA and genomes since 2012 or 2013, which was when a
series of seminal papers were published in Science. These papers put in the hands of
researchers a widely available and easy-to-use tool which allows us to edit the
DNA of any organism, including bacteria and viruses, plants, animals, and human
We already see the positive impacts
in engineering crops to make them more nutritious or drought-resistant, but the
area that I focus most on in the book is its medical potential. This is the
next version of gene therapy, where we’re actually going into cells and fixing
and stitching in the appropriate gene sequence to hopefully restore health to
patients with cancer, sickle cell disease, and a growing list of other
you say that you think is more likely than not to be possible in 10-20 years
down the road?
I hope and think that in 10 years,
we’re going to see some of this true medical potential, where trials are beginning
for hereditary blindness, liver diseases, and heart disease. For example, a recently
launched company called Verve Therapeutics plans on applying CRISPR to tackle
heart disease. However, the list of diseases we are talking about does not
consist of just ultra-rare, obscure genetic diseases either. We’re talking about
sickle cell disease, diabetes, and maybe mental illness.
Another exciting application
involves engineering the DNA of pigs to provide a safe vehicle for organ
transplantation. Pigs and humans, physiologically — believe it or not — are
incredibly similar. If we could render pig organs safe from some of the hidden
sequences in their DNA, they could be a wonderfully abundant source of organ
transplants. So a company called eGenesis has been working to make the pig
genome safe to exploit this possibility.
You write about the accessibility of CRISPR with enthusiasm, but couldn’t this also allow bad actors to create terrible diseases or to alter people permanently in ways that would actually affect the future of humanity?
Yes, one reason people are so excited about CRISPR is that labs around the world in South America, Southeast Asia, and Africa are using this. CRISPR is a democratizing technology. CRISPR can be done literally by a high schooler with an internet connection. There are all kinds of software programs online where you can type in the gene or the sequence you’re interested in targeting and order the primers and the reagents you need to begin and do those experiments. However, as you say, this also potentially makes it easier for scientists to recreate smallpox or worse for nefarious purposes, though I’m not overly concerned about that risk.
As for editing permanent changes
into the human genome, this is something we need to discuss. In 2018, I was in
the front row in Hong Kong at a conference when a Chinese scientist named He
Jiankui made the shocking announcement that he had edited the DNA of two babies
born a few weeks earlier named Lulu and Nana.
This was so significant because he edited the DNA of human embryos, meaning those babies, if they have children, will pass on that edited gene. That was an ethical red line that 99.9 percent of the world’s scientists did not think should be crossed. We just don’t know yet enough about CRISPR — because the technology is still so young — to say it is 100 percent safe and accurate. I think we’ll get there soon, but we’re not there yet.
We’ve mostly been talking about fixing problems with gene therapy, but what about enhancement? It
seems highly unlikely that this is going to stop at therapy.
Trying to enhance individuals or
huge groups of individuals to enhance intelligence, at least based on our
current understanding of science and genetics, is just doomed to fail. There is
no on-off switch for intelligence — if you wanted to alter it, you would have
to potentially tweak the genes of hundreds or thousands of genes.
Many companies and many
philanthropists are very interested in understanding and exploring the genetics
of extended lifespan. I’m not aware of any magic gene that would
allow this. That said, if you want to extend lifespan, one thing you want to do
is to remove the risks of falling off the wagon and succumbing to Alzheimer’s
disease or heart disease or cancer. So if CRISPR provides us ways to
tackle genetic diseases, certain types of cancer, and things like Alzheimer’s
disease, then genome editing will help us extend the lifespan.
degree is CRISPR a result of funding for basic science research?
is a point I bring out in the early stages of the book. This
technology arose from a handful of obscure microbiologists in far places
studying some of the most obscure questions you could possibly imagine. Studying
bacterial immunity to viruses? Most people would scratch their heads and say,
“Please, I don’t care about that.” But that was the origin of the basic
fundamental biology behind CRISPR: Investigator-driven research funded by
organizations like NIH led to this spectacular breakthrough.
We did this 30 years ago with the birth of the biotech industry. We took another family of enzymes in bacteria and said, “These have fantastic properties for manipulating DNA. We can use them to give rise to recombinant DNA.” And that was the birth of genetic engineering. So we have to continue to impress upon governments worldwide to fund basic research. Applied research is great. Big biology projects like The Human Genome Project are great. Still, there’s no substitute for smart, driven investigators following their heart, because you cannot predict the discoveries that they will make.