"All fixed, fast-frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions, are swept away, all new-formed ones become antiquated before they can ossify. All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned…"
On July 25, 1978, Louise Brown was born in Oldham, England, the first human born through in vitro fertilization, through the work of Patrick Steptoe, a gynecologist, and Robert Edwards, a physiologist. Her birth was greeted with strong (though not universal) expressions of ethical dismay. Yet in 2016, the latest year for which we have data, nearly two percent of the babies born in the United States – and around the same percentage throughout the developed world – were the result of IVF. Few, if any, think of these children as unnatural, monsters, or freaks or of their parents as anything other than fortunate.
How should we view Dr. He today, knowing that the world's eventual verdict on the ethics of biomedical technologies often changes?
On November 25, 2018, news broke that Chinese scientist, Dr. He Jiankui, claimed to have edited the genomes of embryos, two of whom had recently become the new babies, Lulu and Nana. The response was immediate and overwhelmingly negative.
Times change. So do views. How will Dr. He be viewed in 40 years? And, more importantly, how should we view him today, knowing that the world's eventual verdict on the ethics of biomedical technologies often changes? And when what biomedicine can do changes with vertiginous frequency?
How to determine what is and isn't ethical is above my pay grade. I'm a simple law professor – I can't claim any deeper insight into how to live a moral life than the millennia of religious leaders, philosophers, ethicists, and ordinary people trying to do the right thing. But I can point out some ways to think about these questions that may be helpful.
First, consider two different kinds of ethical commands. Some are quite specific – "thou shalt not kill," for example. Others are more general – two of them are "do unto others as you would have done to you" or "seek the greatest good for the greatest number."
Biomedicine in the last two centuries has often surprised us with new possibilities, situations that cultures, religions, and bodies of ethical thought had not previously had to consider, from vaccination to anesthesia for women in labor to genome editing. Sometimes these possibilities will violate important and deeply accepted precepts for a group or a person. The rise of blood transfusions around World War I created new problems for Jehovah's Witnesses, who believe that the Bible prohibits ingesting blood. The 20th century developments of artificial insemination and IVF both ran afoul of Catholic doctrine prohibiting methods other than "traditional" marital intercourse for conceiving children. If you subscribe to an ethical or moral code that contains prohibitions that modern biomedicine violates, the issue for you is stark – adhere to those beliefs or renounce them.
If the harms seem to outweigh the benefits, it's easy to conclude "this is worrisome."
But many biomedical changes violate no clear moral teachings. Is it ethical or not to edit the DNA of embryos? Not surprisingly, the sacred texts of various religions – few of which were created after, at the latest, the early 19th century, say nothing specific about this. There may be hints, precedents, leanings that could argue one way or another, but no "commandments." In that case, I recommend, at least as a starting point, asking "what are the likely consequences of these actions?"
Will people be, on balance, harmed or helped by them? "Consequentialist" approaches, of various types, are a vast branch of ethical theories. Personally I find a completely consequentialist approach unacceptable – I could not accept, for example, torturing an innocent child even in order to save many lives. But, in the absence of a clear rule, looking at the consequences is a great place to start. If the harms seem to outweigh the benefits, it's easy to conclude "this is worrisome."
Let's use that starting place to look at a few bioethical issues. IVF, for example, once proven (relatively) safe seems to harm no one and to help many, notably the more than 8 million children worldwide born through IVF since 1978 – and their 16 million parents. On the other hand, giving unknowing, and unconsenting, intellectually disabled children hepatitis A harmed them, for an uncertain gain for science. And freezing the heads of the dead seems unlikely to harm anyone alive (except financially) but it also seems almost certain not to benefit anyone. (Those frozen dead heads are not coming back to life.)
Now let's look at two different kinds of biomedical advances. Some are controversial just because they are new; others are controversial because they cut close to the bone – whether or not they violate pre-established ethical or moral norms, they clearly relate to them.
Consider anesthesia during childbirth. When first used, it was controversial. After all, said critics, in Genesis, the Bible says God told Eve, "I will greatly multiply Your pain in childbirth, In pain you will bring forth children." But it did not clearly prohibit pain relief and from the advent of ether on, anesthesia has been common, though not universal, in childbirth in western societies. The pre-existing ethical precepts were not clear and the consequences weighed heavily in favor of anesthesia. Similarly, vaccination seems to violate no deep moral principle. It was, and for some people, still is just strange, and unnatural. The same was true of IVF initially. Opposition to all of these has faded with time and familiarity. It has not disappeared – some people continue to find moral or philosophical problems with "unnatural" childbirth, vaccination, and IVF – but far fewer.
On the other hand, human embryonic stem cell research touches deeper issues. Human embryos are destroyed to make those stem cells. Reasonable people disagree on the moral status of the human embryo, and the moral weight of its destruction, but it does at least bring into play clear and broadly accepted moral precepts, such as "Thou shalt not kill." So, at the far side of an individual's time, does euthanasia. More exposure to, and familiarity with, these practices will not necessarily lead to broad acceptance as the objections involve more than novelty.
The first is "what would I do?" The second – what should my government, culture, religion allow or forbid?
Finally, all this ethical analysis must work at two levels. The first is "what would I do?" The second – what should my government, culture, religion allow or forbid? There are many things I would not do that I don't think should be banned – because I think other people may reasonably have different views from mine. I would not get cosmetic surgery, but I would not ban it – and will try not to think ill of those who choose it
So, how should we assess the ethics of new biomedical procedures when we know that society's views may change? More specifically, what should we think of He Jiankui's experiment with human babies?
First, look to see whether the procedure in question violates, at least fairly clearly, some rule in your ethical or moral code. If so, your choice may not be difficult. But if the procedure is unmentioned in your moral code, probably because it was inconceivable to the code's creators, examine the consequences of the act.
If the procedure is just novel, and not something that touches on important moral concerns, looking at the likely consequences may be enough for your ethical analysis –though it is always worth remembering that predicting consequences perfectly is impossible and predicting them well is never certain. If it does touch on morally significant issues, you need to think those issues through. The consequences may be important to your conclusions but they may not be determinative.
And, then, if you conclude that it is not ethical from your perspective, you need to take yet another step and consider whether it should be banned for people who do not share your perspective. Sometimes the answer will be yes – that psychopaths may not view murder as immoral does not mean we have to let them kill – but sometimes it will be no.
What does this say about He Jiankui's experiment? I have no qualms in condemning it, unequivocally. The potential risks to the babies grossly outweighed any benefits to them, and to science. And his secret work, against a near universal scientific consensus, privileged his own ethical conclusions without giving anyone else a vote, or even a voice.
But if, in ten or twenty years, genome editing of human embryos is shown to be safe (enough) and it is proposed to be used for good reasons – say, to relieve human suffering that could not be treated in other good ways – and with good consents from those directly involved as well as from the relevant society and government – my answer might well change. Yours may not. Bioethics is a process for approaching questions; it is not a set of universal answers.
This article opened with a quotation from the 1848 Communist Manifesto, referring to the dizzying pace of change from industrialization and modernity. You don't need to be a Marxist to appreciate that sentiment. Change – especially in the biosciences – keeps accelerating. How should we assess the ethics of new biotechnologies? The best we can, with what we know, at the time we inhabit. And, in the face of vast uncertainty, with humility.
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.