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.
CRISPR is producing an important revolution in the biosciences, a revolution that will change our world in fundamental ways. Its implications need to be discussed and debated, and not just by scientists and ethicists. Unfortunately, so far we are debating the wrong issues.
Controversy has raged about editing human genes, particularly the DNA of embryos that could pass the changes down to their descendants. This technology, human germline editing, seems highly unlikely to be broadly available for at least the next few decades; if and when it is, it may well be unimportant.
Human germline editing is unlikely to happen soon because it has important safety risks but almost no significant benefits.
Human germline editing is unlikely to happen soon because it has important safety risks but almost no significant benefits. The risks – harm to babies – are compelling. We care a lot about babies. A technology that worked 95 percent of the time (and produced disabled or dying infants "only" five percent of the time) would be a disaster. Our concern for babies will lead, at the least, to rigorous legal requirements for preapproval safety testing. Many countries will just impose flat bans.
But these risks also have implications beyond safety regulation. For this technology to take off, physicians, assisted reproduction clinics, and geneticists will have to be willing to put their reputations – and their malpractice liability – on the line. And prospective mothers will have to be willing to take unknown risks with their children.
Sometimes, large and unknown risks are worth taking, but not here. For the next few decades, human germline editing offers almost no substantial benefits, for health or for enhancement.
Prospective parents already have a tried and true alternative to avoid having children with genetic diseases: preimplantation genetic diagnosis (PGD). In PGD, clinicians remove cells from three- to five-day-old embryos. Those cells are then tested to see which embryos would inherit the disease and which would not. This technology has been in use for over 27 years and is safe and effective. Rather than engaging in editing an embryo's disease-causing DNA, parents can just select embryos without those DNA variations. For so-called autosomal recessive diseases, three out of four embryos, on average, will be disease free; for autosomal dominant diseases, half will be.
Only a handful of prospective parents would need to use gene editing to avoid genetic disease.
Couples where each has the same recessive condition (cystic fibrosis) or where one of them has the terrible luck to have two copies of the DNA variant for a dominant disease (Huntington's disease). In those cases, the prospective parents would need to stay alive long enough to be able, and be sufficiently healthy to want, to have children. In a world of 7.3 billion humans, there will be some such cases, but they will probably be no more than a few thousand – or hundred.
People are also concerned about germline editing for genetic enhancement. But this is also unlikely anytime soon. We know basically nothing about genetic variations that enhance people beyond normal. For example, we know hundreds of genes that, when damaged, affect intelligence – but these all cause very low intelligence. We know of no variations that non-trivially increase it.
Over the next few decades, we might (or might not) learn about complex diseases where several genes are involved, making embryo selection less useful. And we might (or might not) learn about genetic enhancements involving DNA sequences not typically found in prospective parents and so not available to embryo selection. By that time, the safety issues could be resolved.
And, even then, how worried should we be – and about what? A bit, but not very and not about much.
"The human germline genome is not the holy essence of humanity."
The human germline genome is not the holy essence of humanity. For one thing, it doesn't really exist. There are 7.3 billion human germline genomes; each of us has a different one. And those genomes change every generation. I do not have exactly the same genetic variations my parents received from my grandparents; my children do not have exactly the ones I received from my parents. The DNA changed, through mutation, during each generation.
And our editing will usually be insignificant in the context of the whole human genome. For medical purposes, we will change some rare DNA variations that cause disease into the much more common DNA variations that do not cause disease. Rare, nasty variants will become rarer, but civilization changes these frequencies all the time. For instance, the use of insulin has increased the number of people with DNA variations that predispose people to type 1 ("juvenile") diabetes – because now those people live long enough to reproduce. Even agriculture changed our DNA, leading, for example, to more copies of starch-digesting genes. And, in any event, what is the meaningful difference between "fixing" a disease gene in an embryo or waiting to fix it with gene therapy in a born baby . . . other than avoiding the need to repeat the gene therapy in the next generation?
If genetic enhancement ever becomes possible in a non-trivial way, it would raise important questions, but questions about enhancement generally and not fundamentally about genetics. Enhancement through drugs, prosthetics, brain-computer interfaces, genes, or tools (like the laptop I wrote this on) all raise similar ethical issues. We can use the decades we will have to try to think more systematically about the ethical and policy issues for all enhancements. We should not panic about germline genetic enhancement.
One superficially appealing argument is that we are not wise enough to change our own genomes. This ignores the fact that we have been changing our genomes, inadvertently, since at least the dawn of civilization. We do not have to be wise enough to change our genome perfectly; we just need to be wise enough to change it better than the random and unforeseen ways we change it now. That should not be beyond our power.
Human germline editing will not be a concern for several decades and it may never be an important concern. What should we be paying attention to?
Non-human genome editing. Governments, researchers, and even do-it-yourself hobbyists can use CRISPR, especially when coupled with a technique called "gene drive," to change the genomes of whole species of living things – domestic or wild; animal, vegetable, or microbial – cheaply, easily, and before we even know it is happening. We care much less about mosquito babies than human ones and our legal structures are not built for wise and nuanced regulation of this kind of genome editing. Those issues demand our urgent attention – if we can tear ourselves away from dramatic but less important visions of "designer babies."
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.