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 first thing Jeroen Perk saw after he partially regained his sight nearly a decade ago was the outline of his guide dog Pedro.
“There was a white floor, and the dog was black,” recalls Perk, a 43-year-old investigator for the Dutch customs service. “I was crying. It was a very nice moment.”
Perk was diagnosed with retinitis pigmentosa as a child and had been blind since early adulthood. He has been able to use the implant placed into his retina in 2013 to help identify street crossings, and even ski and pursue archery. A video posted by the company that designed and manufactured the device indicates he’s a good shot.
Less black-and-white has been the journey Perk and others have been on after they were implanted with the Argus II, a second-generation device created by a Los Angeles-based company called Second Sight Medical Devices.
The Argus II uses the implant and a video camera embedded in a special pair of glasses to provide limited vision to those with retinitis pigmentosa, a genetic disease that causes cells in the retina to deteriorate. The camera feeds information to the implant, which sends electrical impulses into the retina to recapitulate what the camera sees. The impulses appear in the Argus II as a 60-pixel grid of blacks, grays and whites in the user’s eye that can render rough outlines of objects and their motion.
Smartphone and computer manufacturers typically stop issuing software upgrades to their devices after two or three years, eventually rendering them bricks. But is the smartphone approach acceptable for a device that helps restore the most crucial sense a human being possesses?
Ross Doerr, a retired disability rights attorney in Maine who received an Argus II in 2019, describes the field of vision as the equivalent of an index card held at arm’s length. Perk often brings objects close to his face to decipher them. Moreover, users must swivel their heads to take in visual data; moving their eyeballs does not work.
Despite its limitations, the Argus II beats the alternative. Perk no longer relies on his guide dog. Doerr was uplifted when he was able to see the outlines of Christmas trees at a holiday show.
“The fairy godmother department sort of reaches out and taps you on the shoulder once in a while,” Doerr says of his implant, which came about purely by chance. A surgeon treating his cataracts was partnered with the son of another surgeon who was implanting the devices, and he was referred.
Doerr had no reason to believe the shower of fairy dust wouldn’t continue. Second Sight held out promises that the Argus II recipients’ vision would gradually improve through upgrades to much higher pixel densities. The ability to recognize individual faces was even touted as a possibility. In the winter of 2020, Doerr was preparing to travel across the U.S. to Second Sight’s headquarters to receive an upgrade. But then COVID-19 descended, and the trip was canceled.
The pandemic also hit Second Sight’s bottom line. Doerr found out about its tribulations only from one of the company’s vision therapists, who told him the entire department was being laid off. Second Sight cut nearly 80% of its workforce in March 2020 and announced it would wind down operations.
Ross Doerr has mostly stopped using his Argus II, the result of combination of fear of losing its assistance from wear and tear and disdain for the company that brought it to market.
Second Sight’s implosion left some 350 Argus recipients in the metaphorical dark about what to do if their implants failed. Skeleton staff seem to have rarely responded to queries from their customers, at least based on the experiences of Perk and Doerr. And some recipients have unfortunately returned to the actual dark as well, as reports have surfaced of Argus II failures due to aging or worn-down parts.
Product support for complex products is remarkably uneven. Although the iconic Ford Mustang ceased production in the late 1960s, its parts market is so robust that it’s theoretically possible to assemble a new vehicle from recently crafted components. Conversely, smartphone and computer manufacturers typically stop issuing software upgrades to their devices after two or three years, eventually rendering them bricks. Consumers have accepted both extremes.
But is the smartphone approach acceptable for a device that helps restore the most crucial sense a human being possesses?
Margaret McLean, a senior fellow at the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics at Santa Clara University in California, notes companies like Second Sight have a greater obligation for product support than other consumer product ventures.
“In this particular case, you have a great deal of risk that is involved in using this device, the implant, and the after care of this device,” she says. “You cannot, like with your car, decide that ‘I don’t like my Mustang anymore,’ and go out and buy a Corvette.”
And, whether the Argus II implant works or not, its physical presence can impact critical medical decisions. Doerr’s doctor wanted him to undergo an MRI to assist in diagnosing attacks of vertigo. But the physician was concerned his implant might interfere. With the latest available manufacturer advisories on his implant nearly a decade old, the procedure was held up. Doerr spent months importuning Second Sight through phone calls, emails and Facebook postings to learn if his implant was contraindicated with MRIs, which he never received. Although the cause of his vertigo was found without an MRI, Doerr was hardly assured.
“Put that into context for a minute. I get into a serious car accident. I end up in the emergency room, and I have a tag saying I have an implanted medical device,” he says. “You can’t do an MRI until you get the proper information from the company. Who’s going to answer the phone?”
Second Sight’s management did answer the call to revamp its business. It netted nearly $78 million through a private stock placement and an initial public offering last year. At the end of 2021, Second Sight had nearly $70 million in cash on hand, according to a recent filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission.
And while the Argus II is still touted at length on Second Sight’s home page, it appears little of its corporate coffers are earmarked toward its support. These days, the company is focused on obtaining federal approvals for Orion, a new implant that would go directly into the recipient’s brain and could be used to remedy blindness from a variety of causes. It obtained a $6.4 million grant from the National Institutes of Health in May 2021 to help develop Orion.
Presented with a list of written questions by email, Second Sight’s spokesperson, Dave Gentry of the investor relations firm Red Chip Companies, copied a subordinate with an abrupt message to “please handle.” That was the only response from a company representative. A call to Second Sight acting chief executive officer Scott Dunbar went unreturned.
Whether or not the Orion succeeds remains to be seen. The company’s SEC filings suggest a viable and FDA-approved device is years away, and that operational losses are expected for the “foreseeable future.” Second Sight reported zero revenue in 2020 or 2021.
Moreover, the experiences of the Argus II recipients could color the reception of future Second Sight products. Doerr notes that his insurer paid nearly $500,000 to implant his device and for training on how to use it.
“What’s the insurance industry going to say the next time this crops up?” Doerr asks, noting that the company’s reputation is “completely shot” with the recipients of its implants.
Perk, who made speeches to praise the Argus II and is still featured in a video on the Second Sight website, says he also no longer supports the company.
Jeroen Perk, an investigator for the Dutch customs service, cried for joy after partially regaining his sight, but he no longer trusts Second Sight, the company that provided his implant.
Nevertheless, Perk remains highly reliant on the technology. When he dropped an external component of his device in late 2020 and it broke, Perk briefly debated whether to remain blind or find a way to get his Argus II working again. Three months later, he was able to revive it by crowdsourcing parts, primarily from surgeons with spare components or other Argus II recipients who no longer use their devices. Perk now has several spare parts in reserve in case of future breakdowns.
Despite the frantic efforts to retain what little sight he has, Perk has no regrets about having the device implanted. And while he no longer trusts Second Sight, he is looking forward to possibly obtaining more advanced implants from companies in the Netherlands and Australia working on their own products.
Doerr suggests that biotech firms whose implants are distributed globally be bound to some sort of international treaty requiring them to service their products in perpetuity. Such treaties are still applied to the salvage rights for ships that sunk centuries ago, he notes.
“I think that in a global tech economy, that would be a good thing,” says McLean, the fellow at Santa Clara, “but I am not optimistic about it in the near term. Business incentives push toward return on share to stockholders, not to patients and other stakeholders. We likely need to rely on some combination of corporately responsibility…and [international] government regulation. It’s tough—the Paris Climate Accord implementation at a slow walk comes to mind.”
Unlike Perk, Doerr has mostly stopped using his Argus II, the result of combination of fear of losing its assistance from wear and tear and disdain for the company that brought it to market. At 70, Doerr says he does not have the time or energy to hold the company more accountable. And with Second Sight having gone through a considerable corporate reorganization, Doerr believes a lawsuit to compel it to better serve its Argus recipients would be nothing but an extremely costly longshot.
“It’s corporate America at its best,” he observes.
Lori Tipton's life was a cascade of trauma that even a soap opera would not dare inflict upon a character: a mentally unstable family; a brother who died of a drug overdose; the shocking discovery of the bodies of two persons her mother had killed before turning the gun on herself; the devastation of Hurricane Katrina that savaged her hometown of New Orleans; being raped by someone she trusted; and having an abortion. She suffered from severe PTSD.
“My life was filled with anxiety and hypervigilance,” she says. “I was constantly afraid and had mood swings, panic attacks, insomnia, intrusive thoughts and suicidal ideation. I tried to take my life more than once.” She was fortunate to be able to access multiple mental health services, “And while at times some of these modalities would relieve the symptoms, nothing really lasted and nothing really address the core trauma.”
Then in 2018 Tipton enrolled in a clinical trial that combined intense sessions of psychotherapy with limited use of Methylenedioxymethamphetamine, or MDMA, a drug classified as a psychedelic and commonly known as ecstasy or Molly. The regimen was arduous; 1-2 hour preparation sessions, three sessions where MDMA was used, which lasted 6-8 hours, and lengthy sessions afterward to process and integrate the experiences. Two therapists were with her every moment of the three-month program that totaled more than 40 hours.
“It was clear to me that [the therapists] weren't going to heal me, that I was going to have to do the work for myself, but that they were there to completely support my process,” she says. “But the effects of MDMA were really undeniable for me. I felt embodied in a way that I hadn't in years. PTSD had robbed me of the ability to feel safe in my own body.”
Tipton doesn’t think the therapy completely cured her PTSD. “But when I completed the trial in 2018, I no longer qualified for the diagnosis, and I still don't qualify for the diagnosis today,” she told an April workshop on psychedelics as mental health treatment by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine, or NASEM.
Rick Doblin has been a catalyst behind much of the contemporary research into psychedelics. Prior to the DEA clamp down, the Boston psychotherapist had seen that MDMA and other psychedelics could benefit some of his patients where other measures had failed. He immediately organized efforts to question the drug rescheduling but to little avail. In 1986, he created the nonprofit Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS), which slowly laid the scientific foundation for clinical trials, including the one that Tipton joined, using psychedelics to treat mental health conditions.
Now, only slowly, have researchers been able to explore the power of these drugs to treat a broad spectrum of severely debilitating mental health conditions, including trauma, depression, and PTSD, where other available treatments proved inadequate.
“Psychedelic psychotherapy is an attempt to go after the root causes of the problems with just a relatively few administrations, as contrasted to most of the psychiatric drugs used today that are mostly just reducing symptoms and are meant to be taken on a daily basis,” Doblin said in a 2019 TED Talk. Most of these drugs can have broad effect but “some are probably more effective than others for certain conditions,” he added in a recent interview with Leaps.org. Comparative head-to-head studies of psychedelic therapies simply have not been conducted.
Their mechanisms of action are poorly understood and can vary between drugs, but it is generally believed that psychedelics change the activity of neurons so that the brain processes information differently, says Katrin Preller, a neuropsychologist at the University of Zurich. A recent important study in Nature Medicine by Richard Daws and colleagues used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) of the brain and found that “functional networks became more functionally interconnected and flexible after psilocybin treatment…implying that psilocybin's antidepressant action may depend on a global increase in brain network integration.”
Rosalind Watts, a clinical investigator at the Imperial College in London, believes there is “an overestimation of the importance of the drug and an underestimation of the importance of the [therapeutic] context” in psychedelic research. “It is unethical to provide the drug without the other,” she says. Doblin notes that “psychotherapy outcomes research demonstrates that the therapeutic alliance between the therapist and the patients is the single most predictive factor of outcomes. [It is] trust and the sense of safety, the willingness to go into difficult spaces” that makes clinical breakthroughs possible with the drug.
Excitement and Challenges
Recurrent themes expressed at the NASEM workshop were exciting glimpses of the potential for psychedelics to treat mental health conditions combined with the challenges of realizing those potentials. A recent review paper found evidence that using psychedelics can help with treating a variety of common mental illnesses, but the paper could identify only 14 clinical trials of classic psychedelics published since 1991. Much of the reason is that the drugs are not patentable and so the pharmaceutical industry has no interest in investing in expensive clinical trials to bring them to market. MAPS has raised about $135 million over its 36-year history to conduct such research, says Doblin, the vast majority of it from individual donors and none from foundations.
The workshop participants’ views also were colored by the history of drug crackdowns and a fear that research might easily be shut down in the future. There was great concern that use of psychedelics should be confined to clinical trials with high safety and ethical standards, instead of doctors and patients experimenting on their own. “We need to get it right this time,” says Charles Grob, a psychiatrist at the UCLA School of Medicine. But restricting access to psychedelics will become even more difficult now that Oregon and several cities have acted to decriminalize possession and use of many of these drugs.
The experience with ketamine also troubled Grob. He is hoping to “mitigate the rush of rapid commercialization” that occurred with that drug. Ketamine technically is not a psychedelic though it does share some of their potentially euphoric properties. In 2019, soon after the FDA approved a form of ketamine with a limited label indication to treat depression, for profit clinics sprang up promoting off label use of the drug for psychiatric conditions where there was little clinical evidence of efficacy. He fears the same thing will happen when true psychedelics are made available.
If these therapies are approved, access to them is likely to be a problem. The drugs themselves are cheap but the accompanying therapy is not, and there is a shortage of trained psychotherapists. Mental health services often are not adequately covered by health insurance, while the poor and people of color suffer additional burdens of inadequate access. Doblin is committed to health care equity by training additional providers and by investigating whether some of the preparatory and integration sessions might be handled in a group setting. He says it is important that the legal aspects of psychedelics also be addressed so that patients “don't have to go underground” in order to receive this care.