Terror. Error. Success. These are the three outcomes that ethicists evaluating a new technology should fear. The possibility that a breakthrough might be used maliciously. The possibility that newly empowered scientists might make a catastrophic mistake. And the possibility that a technology will be so successful that it will change how we live in ways that we can only guess—and that we may not want.
These tools will allow scientists to practice genetic engineering on a scale that is simultaneously far more precise and far more ambitious than ever before.
It was true for the scientists behind the Manhattan Project, who bequeathed a fear of nuclear terror and nuclear error, even as global security is ultimately defined by these weapons of mass destruction. It was true for the developers of the automobile, whose invention has been weaponized by terrorists and kills 3,400 people by accident each day, even as the more than 1 billion cars on the road today have utterly reshaped where we live and how we move. And it is true for the researchers behind the revolution in gene editing and writing.
Put simply, these tools will allow scientists to practice genetic engineering on a scale that is simultaneously far more precise and far more ambitious than ever before. Editing techniques like CRISPR enable exact genetic repairs through a simple cut and paste of DNA, while synthetic biologists aim to redo entire genomes through the writing and substitution of synthetic genes. The technologies are complementary, and they herald an era when the book of life will be not just readable, but rewritable. Food crops, endangered animals, even the human body itself—all will eventually be programmable.
The benefits are easy to imagine: more sustainable crops; cures for terminal genetic disorders; even an end to infertility. Also easy to picture are the ethical pitfalls as the negative images of those same benefits.
Terror is the most straightforward. States have sought to use biology as a weapon at least since invading armies flung the corpses of plague victims into besieged castles. The 1975 biological weapons convention banned—with general success—the research and production of offensive bioweapons, though a handful of lone terrorists and groups like the Oregon-based Rajneeshee cult have still carried out limited bioweapon attacks. Those incidents ultimately caused little death and damage, in part because medical science is mostly capable of defending us from those pathogens that are most easily weaponized. But gene editing and writing offers the chance to engineer germs that could be far more effective than anything nature could develop. Imagine a virus that combines the lethality of Ebola with the transmissibility of the common cold—and in the new world of biology, if you can imagine something, you will eventually be able to create it.
The benefits are easy to imagine: more sustainable crops; cures for terminal genetic disorders; even an end to infertility. Also easy to picture are the ethical pitfalls.
That's one reason why James Clapper, then the U.S. director of national intelligence, added gene editing to the list of threats posed by "weapons of mass destruction and proliferation" in 2016. But these new tools aren't merely dangerous in the wrong hands—they can also be dangerous in the right hands. The list of labs accidents involving lethal bugs is much longer than you'd want to know, at least if you're the sort of person who likes to sleep at night. The U.S. recently lifted a ban on research that works to make existing pathogens, like the H5N1 avian flu virus, more virulent and transmissible, often using new technologies like gene editing. Such work can help medicine better prepare for what nature might throw at us, but it could also make the consequences of a lab error far more catastrophic. There's also the possibility that the use of gene editing and writing in nature—say, by CRISPRing disease-carrying mosquitoes to make them sterile—could backfire in some unforeseen way. Add in the fact that the techniques behind gene editing and writing are becoming simpler and more automated with every year, and eventually millions of people will be capable—through terror or error—of unleashing something awful on the world.
The good news is that both the government and the researchers driving these technologies are increasingly aware of the risks of bioterror and error. One government program, the Functional Genomic and Computational Assessment of Threats (Fun GCAT), provides funding for scientists to scan genetic data looking for the "accidental or intentional creation of a biological threat." Those in the biotech industry know to keep an eye out for suspicious orders—say, a new customer who orders part of the sequence of the Ebola or smallpox virus. "With every invention there is a good use and a bad use," Emily Leproust, the CEO of the commercial DNA synthesis startup Twist Bioscience, said in a recent interview. "What we try hard to do is put in place as many systems as we can to maximize the good stuff, and minimize any negative impact."
But the greatest ethical challenges in gene editing and writing will arise not from malevolence or mistakes, but from success. Through a new technology called in vitro gametogenesis (IVG), scientists are learning how to turn adult human cells like a piece of skin into lab-made sperm and egg cells. That would be a huge breakthrough for the infertile, or for same-sex couples who want to conceive a child biologically related to both partners. It would also open the door to using gene editing to tinker with those lab-made embryos. At first interventions would address any obvious genetic disorders, but those same tools would likely allow the engineering of a child's intelligence, height and other characteristics. We might be morally repelled today by such an ability, as many scientists and ethicists were repelled by in-vitro fertilization (IVF) when it was introduced four decades ago. Yet more than a million babies in the U.S. have been born through IVF in the years since. Ethics can evolve along with technology.
These new technologies offer control over the code of life, but only we as a society can seize control over where these tools will take us.
Fertility is just one human institution that stands to be changed utterly by gene editing and writing, and it's a change we can at least imagine. As the new biology grows more ambitious, it will alter society in ways we can't begin to picture. Harvard's George Church and New York University's Jef Boeke are leading an effort called HGP-Write to create a completely synthetic human genome. While gene editing allows scientists to make small changes to the genome, the gene synthesis that Church and his collaborators are developing allows for total genetic rewrites. "It's a difference between editing a book and writing one," Church said in an interview earlier this year.
Church is already working on synthesizing organs that would be resistant to viruses, while other researchers like Harris Wang at Columbia University are experimenting with bioengineering mammalian cells to produce nutrients like amino acids that we currently need to get from food. The horizon is endless—and so are the ethical concerns of success. What if parents feel pressure to engineer their children just so they don't fall behind their IVG peers? What if only the rich are able to access synthetic biology technologies that could make them stronger, smarter and longer lived? Could inequality become encoded in the genome?
These are questions that are different from the terror and errors fears around biosecurity, because they ask us to think hard about what kind of future we want. To their credit, Church and his collaborators have engaged bioethicists from the start of their work, as have the pioneers behind CRISPR. But the challenges coming from successful gene editing and writing are too large to be outsourced to professional ethicists. These new technologies offer control over the code of life, but only we as a society can seize control over where these tools will take us.
The Friday Five covers five stories in research that you may have missed this week. There are plenty of controversies and troubling ethical issues in science – and we get into many of them in our online magazine – but this news roundup focuses on scientific creativity and progress to give you a therapeutic dose of inspiration headed into the weekend.
Here are the promising studies covered in this week's Friday Five:
- Research on a "smart" bandage for wounds
- A breakthrough in fighting inflammation
- The pros and cons of a new drug for Alzheimer's
- Benefits of the Mediterranean diet - with a twist
- How to recycle a plastic that was un-recyclable
Sexually transmitted infections (STIs) are surging across the U.S. to 2.5 million cases in 2021 according to preliminary data from the CDC. A new prevention and treatment strategy now in clinical trials may provide a way to get a handle on them.
It's easy to overlook the soaring rates of gonorrhea, chlamydia, and syphilis because most of those infections have few or no symptoms and can be identified only through testing. But left untreated, they can lead to serious damage to nerves and tissue, resulting in infertility, blindness, and dementia. Infants developing in utero are particularly vulnerable.
Covid-19 played havoc with regular medical treatment and preventive care for many health problems, including STIs. After formal lockdowns ended, many people gradually became more socially engaged, with increases in sexual activity, and may have prioritized these activities over getting back in touch with their doctors.
A second blow to controlling STIs is that family planning clinics are closing left and right because of the Dobbs decision and legislation in many states that curtailed access to an abortion. Discussion has focused on abortion, but those same clinics also play a vital role in the diagnosis and treatment of STIs.
Routine public health is the neglected stepchild of medicine. It is called upon in times of crisis but as that crisis resolves, funding dries up. Labs have atrophied and personnel have been redirected to Covid, “so access to routine screening for STIs has been decimated,” says Jennifer Mahn, director of sexual and clinical health with the National Coalition of STD Directors.
A preview of what we likely are facing comes from Iowa. In 2017, the state legislature restricted funding to family health clinics in four counties, which closed their doors. A year later the statewide rate of gonorrhea skyrocketed from 83 to 153.7 cases per 100,000 people. “Iowa counties with clinic closures had a significantly larger increase,” according to a study published in JAMA. That scenario likely is playing out in countless other regions where access to sexual health care is shrinking; it will be many months before we have the data to know for sure.
A decades-old antibiotic finds a new purpose
Using drugs to protect against HIV, either as post exposure prophylaxis (PEP) or pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP), has proven to be quite successful. Researchers wondered if the same approach might be applied to other STIs. They focused on doxycycline, or doxy for short. One of the most commonly prescribed antibiotics in the U.S., it’s a member of the tetracycline family that has been on the market since 1967. It is so safe that it’s used to treat acne.
Two small studies using doxy suggested that it could work to prevent STIs. A handful of clinical trials by different researchers and funding sources set out to generate the additional evidence needed to prove their hypothesis and change the standard of care.
Senior researcher Victor Omollo, with the Kenya Medical Research Institute, noted, “These are prevention interventions that women can control on their own without having to seek or get consent from another person,” as is the case with condom use.
The first with results is the DoxyPEP study, conducted at two sexual health clinics in San Francisco and Seattle. It drew from a mix of transgender women and men who have sex with men, who had at least one diagnosed STI over the last year. The researchers divided the participants into two groups: one with people who were already HIV-positive and engaged in care, while the other group consisted of people who were on PrEP to prevent infection with HIV. For the active part of the study, a subset of the participants received doxy, and the rest of the participants did not.
The researchers intentionally chose to do the study in a population at the highest risk of having STIs, who were very health oriented, and “who were getting screened every three months or so as part of their PrEP program or their HIV care program,” says Connie Celum, a senior researcher at the University of Washington on the study.
Each member of the active group was given a supply of doxy and asked to take two pills within 72 hours of having sex where a condom was not used. The study was supposed to run for two years but, in May, it stopped halfway through, when a safety monitoring board looked at the data and recommended that it would be unethical to continue depriving the control group of the drug’s benefits.
Celum presented these preliminary results from the DoxyPEP study in July at the International AIDS Conference in Montreal. “We saw about a 56 percent reduction in gonorrhea, about 80 percent reduction in chlamydia and syphilis, so very significant reductions, and this is on a per quarter basis,” she told a later webinar.
In Kenya, another study is following a group of cisgender women who are taking the same two-pill regimen to prevent HIV, and the data from this research should become available in 2023. Senior researcher Victor Omollo, with the Kenya Medical Research Institute, noted that “these are prevention interventions that women can control on their own without having to seek or get consent from another person,” as is the case with condom use, another effective prevention tool.
Antibiotic resistance is a potentially big concern. About 25 percent of gonorrhea strains circulating in the U.S. are resistant to the tetracycline class of drugs, including doxy; rates are higher elsewhere. But resistance often is a matter of degree and can be overcome with a larger or longer dose of the drug, or perhaps with a switch to another drug or a two-drug combination.
Research has shown that an established bacterial infection is more difficult to treat because it is part of a biofilm, which can leave only a small portion or perhaps none of the cell surface exposed to a drug. But a new infection, even one where the bacteria is resistant to a drug, might still be vulnerable to that drug if it's used before the bacterial biofilm can be established. Preliminary data suggests that may be the case with doxyPEP and drug resistant gonorrhea; some but not all new drug resistant infections might be thwarted if they’re treated early enough.
“There are some tradeoffs” to these interventions, Celum says, and people may disagree on the cost of increased resistance balanced against the benefits of treating the STIs and reducing their spread within the community.
Resistance does not seem to be an issue yet for chlamydia and syphilis even though doxy has been a recommended treatment for decades, but a remaining question is whether broader use of doxy will directly worsen antibiotic resistance in gonorrhea, or promote it in other STIs. And how will it affect the gut microbiome?
In addition, Celum notes that we need to understand whether doxy will generate mutations in other bacteria that might contribute to drug resistance for gonorrhea, chlamydia or syphilis. The studies underway aim to provide data to answer these questions.
“There are some tradeoffs” to these interventions, Celum says, and people may disagree on the cost of increased resistance balanced against the benefits of treating the STIs and reducing their spread within the community. That might affect doctors' willingness to prescribe the drug.
Turning research into action
The CDC makes policy recommendations for prevention services such as taking doxy, requiring some and leaving others optional. Celum says the CDC will be reviewing information from her trial at a meeting in December, but probably will wait until that study is published before making recommendations, likely in 2023. The San Francisco Department of Public Health issued its own guidance on October 20th and anecdotally, some doctors around the country are beginning to issue prescriptions for doxy to select patients.
About half of new STIs occur in young people ages 15 to 24, a group that is least likely to regularly see a doctor. And sexual health remains a great taboo for many people who don't want such information on their health record for prying parents, employers or neighbors to find out.
“People will go out of their way and travel extensive distances just to avoid that,” says Mahn, the National Coalition director. “People identify locations where they feel safe, where they feel welcome, where they don't feel judged,” Mahn explains, such as community and family planning clinics. They understand those issues and have fees that vary depending on a person’s ability to pay.
Given that these clinics already are understaffed and underfunded, they will be hard pressed to expand services covering the labor intensive testing and monitoring of a doxyPEP regimen. Sexual health clinics don't even have a separate line item in the federal budget for health. That is something the National Association of STI Directors is pushing for in D.C.
DoxyPEP isn't a panacea, and it isn't for everyone. “We really want to try to reach that population who is most likely going to have an STI in the next year,” says Celum, “Because that's where you are going to have the biggest impact.”