BIG QUESTION OF THE MONTH: Should we use CRISPR, the new technique that enables precise DNA editing, to change the genes of human embryos to eradicate disease--or even to enhance desirable traits? LeapsMag invited three leading experts to weigh in.
Now that researchers around the world have begun to edit the genes of human embryos with CRISPR, the ethical debate has become more timely than ever: Should this kind of research be on the table or categorically ruled out?
All of us need gene editing to be pursued, and if possible, made safe enough to use in humans. Not only to pave the way for effective procedures on adults, but more importantly, to keep open the possibility of using gene editing to protect embryos from susceptibility to major diseases and to prevent other debilitating genetic conditions from being passed on through them to future generations.
Objections to gene editing in embryos rest on three fallacious arguments:
- Gene editing is wrong because it affects future generations, the argument being that the human germline is sacred and inviolable.
- It constitutes an unknown and therefore unacceptable risk to future generations.
- The inability to obtain the consent of those future generations means we must not use gene editing.
We should be clear that there is no precautionary approach; just as justice delayed is justice denied, so therapy delayed is therapy denied.
Regarding the first point, many objections to germline interventions emphasize that such interventions are objectionable in that they affect "generations down the line". But this is true, not only of all assisted reproductive technologies, but of all reproduction of any kind.
Sexual reproduction would never have been licensed by regulators
As for the second point, every year an estimated 7.9 million children - 6% of total births worldwide - are born with a serious birth defect of genetic or partially genetic origin. Had sexual reproduction been invented by scientists rather than resulting from our evolved biology, it would never have been licensed by regulators - far too inefficient and dangerous!
If the appropriate benchmark for permissible risk of harm to future generations is sexual reproduction, other germline-changing techniques would need to demonstrate severe foreseeable dangers to fail.
Raising the third point in his statement on gene-editing in human embryos, Francis S. Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health, stated: "The strong arguments against engaging in this activity remain … These include the serious and unquantifiable safety issues, ethical issues presented by altering the germline in a way that affects the next generation without their consent."
"Serious and unquantifiable" safety issues feature in all new technologies but consent is simply irrelevant for the simple and sufficient reason that there are no relevant people in existence capable of either giving or withholding consent to these sorts of changes in their own germline.
We all have to make decisions for future people without considering their inevitably absent consent. All would-be/might-be parents make numerous decisions about issues that might affect their future children. They do this all the time without thinking about consent of the children.
George Bernard Shaw and Isadora Duncan were possibly apocryphal exceptions. She, apparently, said to him something like: "Why don't we have a child? With my looks and your brains it cannot fail," and received Shaw's more rational assessment: "Yes, but what if it has my looks and your brains?"
If there is a discernible duty here, it is surely to try to create the best possible child, a child who will be the healthiest, most intelligent and most resilient to disease reasonably possible given the parents' other priorities. This is why we educate and vaccinate our children and give them a good diet if we can. That is what it is to act for the best, all things considered. This we have moral reasons to do; but they are not necessarily overriding reasons.
"There is no morally significant line between therapy and enhancement."
There is no morally significant line that can be drawn between therapy and enhancement. As I write these words in my London apartment, I am bathed in synthetic sunshine, one of the oldest and most amazing enhancement technologies. Before its invention, our ancestors had to rest or hide in the dark. With the advent of synthetic sunshine--firelight, candlelight, lamplight and electric light--we could work and play as long as we wished.Steven Hawking initially predicted that we might have about 7.6 billion years to go before the Earth gives up on us; he recently revised his position in relation to the Earth's continuing habitability as opposed to its physical survival: "We must also continue to go into space for the future of humanity," he said recently. "I don't think we will survive another thousand years without escaping beyond our fragile planet."
We will at some point have to escape both beyond our fragile planet and our fragile nature. One way to enhance our capacity to do both these things is by improving on human nature where we can do so in ways that are "safe enough." What we all have an inescapable moral duty to do is to continue with scientific investigation of gene editing techniques to the point at which we can make a rational choice. We must certainly not stop now.
At the end of a 2015 summit where I spoke about this issue, the renowned Harvard geneticist George Church noted that gene editing "opens up the possibility of not just transplantation from pigs to humans but the whole idea that a pig organ is perfectible…Gene editing could ensure the organs are very clean, available on demand and healthy, so they could be superior to human donor organs."
"We know for sure that in the future there will be no more human beings and no more planet Earth."
We know for sure that in the future there will be no more human beings and no more planet Earth. Either we will have been wiped out by our own foolishness or by brute forces of nature, or we will have further evolved by a process more rational and much quicker than Darwinian evolution--a process I described in my book Enhancing Evolution. Even more certain is that there will be no more planet Earth. Our sun will die, and with it, all possibility of life on this planet.As I say in my recent book How to Be Good:
By the time this happens, we may hope that our better evolved successors will have developed the science and the technology needed to survive and to enable us (them) to find and colonize another planet or perhaps even to build another planet; and in the meanwhile, to cope better with the problems presented by living on this planet.
In November 2020, messenger RNA catapulted into the public consciousness when the first COVID-19 vaccines were authorized for emergency use. Around the same time, an equally groundbreaking yet relatively unheralded application of mRNA technology was taking place at a London hospital.
Over the past two decades, there's been increasing interest in harnessing mRNA — molecules present in all of our cells that act like digital tape recorders, copying instructions from DNA in the cell nucleus and carrying them to the protein-making structures — to create a whole new class of therapeutics.
Scientists realized that artificial mRNA, designed in the lab, could be used to instruct our cells to produce certain antibodies, turning our bodies into vaccine-making factories, or to recognize and attack tumors. More recently, researchers recognized that mRNA could also be used to make another groundbreaking technology far more accessible to more patients: gene editing. The gene-editing tool CRISPR has generated plenty of hype for its potential to cure inherited diseases. But delivering CRISPR to the body is complicated and costly.
"Most gene editing involves taking cells out of the patient, treating them and then giving them back, which is an extremely expensive process," explains Drew Weissman, professor of medicine at the University of Pennsylvania, who was involved in developing the mRNA technology behind the COVID-19 vaccines.
But last November, a Massachusetts-based biotech company called Intellia Therapeutics showed it was possible to use mRNA to make the CRISPR system inside the body, eliminating the need to extract cells out of the body and edit them in a lab. Just as mRNA can instruct our cells to produce antibodies against a viral infection, it can also teach them to produce the two molecular components that make up CRISPR — a guide molecule and a cutting protein — to snip out a problem gene.
"The pandemic has really shown that not only are mRNA approaches viable, they could in certain circumstances be vastly superior to more traditional technologies."
In Intellia's London-based clinical trial, the company applied this for the first time in a patient with a rare inherited liver disease known as hereditary transthyretin amyloidosis with polyneuropathy. The disease causes a toxic protein to build up in a person's organs and is typically fatal. In a company press release, Intellia's president and CEO John Leonard swiftly declared that its mRNA-based CRISPR therapy could usher in a "new era of potential genome editing cures."
Weissman predicts that turning CRISPR into an affordable therapy will become the next major frontier for mRNA over the coming decade. His lab is currently working on an mRNA-based CRISPR treatment for sickle cell disease. More than 300,000 babies are born with sickle cell every year, mainly in lower income nations.
"There is a FDA-approved cure, but it involves taking the bone marrow out of the person, and then giving it back which is prohibitively expensive," he says. It also requires a patient to have a matched bone marrow done. "We give an intravenous injection of mRNA lipid nanoparticles that target CRISPR to the bone marrow stem cells in the patient, which is easy, and much less expensive."
Meanwhile, the overwhelming success of the COVID-19 vaccines has focused attention on other ways of using mRNA to bolster the immune system against threats ranging from other infectious diseases to cancer.
The practicality of mRNA vaccines – relatively small quantities are required to induce an antibody response – coupled with their adaptable design, mean companies like Moderna are now targeting pathogens like Zika, chikungunya and cytomegalovirus, or CMV, which previously considered commercially unviable for vaccine developers. This is because outbreaks have been relatively sporadic, and these viruses mainly affect people in low-income nations who can't afford to pay premium prices for a vaccine. But mRNA technology means that jabs could be produced on a flexible basis, when required, at relatively low cost.
Other scientists suggest that mRNA could even provide a means of developing a universal influenza vaccine, a goal that's long been the Holy Grail for vaccinologists around the world.
"The mRNA technology allows you to pick out bits of the virus that you want to induce immunity to," says Michael Mulqueen, vice president of business development at eTheRNA, a Belgium-based biotech that's developing mRNA-based vaccines for malaria and HIV, as well as various forms of cancer. "This means you can get the immune system primed to the bits of the virus that don't vary so much between strains. So you could actually have a single vaccine that protects against a whole raft of different variants of the same virus, offering more universal coverage."
Before mRNA became synonymous with vaccines, its biggest potential was for cancer treatments. BioNTech, the German biotech company that collaborated with Pfizer to develop the first authorized COVID-19 vaccine, was initially founded to utilize mRNA for personalized cancer treatments, and the company remains interested in cancers ranging from melanoma to breast cancer.
One of the major hurdles in treating cancer has been the fact that tumors can look very different from one person to the next. It's why conventional approaches, such as chemotherapy or radiation, don't work for every patient. But weaponizing mRNA against cancer primes the immune cells with the tumor's specific genetic sequence, training the patient's body to attack their own unique type of cancer.
"It means you're able to think about personalizing cancer treatments down to specific subgroups of patients," says Mulqueen. "For example, eTheRNA are developing a renal cell carcinoma treatment which will be targeted at around 20% of these patients, who have specific tumor types. We're hoping to take that to human trials next year, but the challenge is trying to identify the right patients for the treatment at an early stage."
Repairing Damaged mRNA
While hopes are high that mRNA could usher in new cancer treatments and make CRISPR more accessible, a growing number of companies are also exploring an alternative to gene editing, known as RNA editing.
In genetic disorders, the mRNA in certain cells is impaired due to a rogue gene defect, and so the body ceases to produce a particular vital protein. Instead of permanently deleting the problem gene with CRISPR, the idea behind RNA editing is to inject small pieces of synthetic mRNA to repair the existing mRNA. Scientists think this approach will allow normal protein production to resume.
Over the past few years, this approach has gathered momentum, as some researchers have recognized that it holds certain key advantages over CRISPR. Companies from Belgium to Japan are now looking at RNA editing to treat all kinds of disorders, from Huntingdon's disease, to amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS, and certain types of cancer.
"With RNA editing, you don't need to make any changes to the DNA," explains Daniel de Boer, CEO of Dutch biotech ProQR, which is looking to treat rare genetic disorders that cause blindness. "Changes to the DNA are permanent, so if something goes wrong, that may not be desirable. With RNA editing, it's a temporary change, so we dose patients with our drugs once or twice a year."
Last month, ProQR reported a landmark case study, in which a patient with a rare form of blindness called Leber congenital amaurosis, which affects the retina at the back of the eye, recovered vision after three months of treatment.
"We have seen that this RNA therapy restores vision in people that were completely blind for a year or so," says de Boer. "They were able to see again, to read again. We think there are a large number of other genetic diseases we could go after with this technology. There are thousands of different mutations that can lead to blindness, and we think this technology can target approximately 25% of them."
Ultimately, there's likely to be a role for both RNA editing and CRISPR, depending on the disease. "I think CRISPR is ideally suited for illnesses where you would like to permanently correct a genetic defect," says Joshua Rosenthal of the Marine Biology Laboratory in Chicago. "Whereas RNA editing could be used to treat things like pain, where you might want to reset a neural circuit temporarily over a shorter period of time."
Much of this research has been accelerated by the COVID-19 pandemic, which has played a major role in bringing mRNA to the forefront of people's minds as a therapeutic.
"The pandemic has really shown that not only are mRNA approaches viable, they could in certain circumstances be vastly superior to more traditional technologies," says Mulqueen. "In the future, I would not be surprised if many of the top pharma products are mRNA derived."
"Making Sense of Science" is a monthly podcast that features interviews with leading medical and scientific experts about the latest developments and the big ethical and societal questions they raise. This episode is hosted by science and biotech journalist Emily Mullin, summer editor of the award-winning science outlet Leaps.org.