Combining CRISPR genome editing with the natural phenomenon of gene drive allows us to rewrite the genomes of wild organisms. The benefits of saving children from malaria by editing mosquitoes are obvious and much discussed, but humans aren't the only creatures who suffer. If we gain the power to intervene in a natural world "red in tooth and claw," yet decline to use it, are we morally responsible for the animal suffering that we could have prevented?
Given the power to alter the workings of the natural world, are we morally obligated to use it?
The scenario that may redefine our relationship with the natural world begins with fine clothing. You're dressed to the nines for a formal event, but you arrived early, and it's such a beautiful day that you decided to take a stroll by the nearby lake. Suddenly, you hear the sound of splashing and screams. A child is drowning! Will you dive in to save them? Or let them die, and preserve your expensive outfit?
The philosopher Peter Singer posited this scenario to show that we are all terrible human beings. Just about everyone would save the child and ruin the outfit... leading Singer to question why so few of us give equivalent amounts of money to save children on the other side of the world. The Against Malaria Foundation averages one life saved for every $7000.
But despite having a local bias, our moral compasses aren't completely broken. You never even considered letting the child drown because the situation wasn't your fault. That's because the cause of the problem simply isn't relevant: as the one who could intervene, the consequences are on your head. We are morally responsible for intervening in situations we did not create.
There is a critical difference between Singer's original scenario and the one above: in his version, it was a muddy pond. Any adult can rescue a child from a muddy pond, but a lake is different; you can only save the child if you know how to swim. We only become morally responsible when we acquire the power to intervene.
Few would disagree with either of these moral statements, but when they are combined with increasingly powerful technologies, the implications are deeply unsettling. Given the power to alter the workings of the natural world, are we morally obligated to use it? Recent developments suggest we had best determine the answer soon because, technologically, we are learning to swim. What choices will we make?
Gene drive is a natural phenomenon that occurs when a genetic element reliably spreads through a population even though it reduces the reproductive fitness of individual organisms. Nature has evolved many different mechanisms that result in gene drive, so many that it's nearly impossible to find an organism that doesn't have at least one driving element somewhere in its genome. More than half of our own DNA comprises the broken remnants of gene drives, plus a few active copies.
Scientists have long dreamed of harnessing gene drive to block mosquito-borne disease, with little success. Then came CRISPR genome editing, which works by cutting target genes and replacing them with a new sequence. What happens if you replace the original sequence with the edited version and an encoded copy of the CRISPR system? Gene drive.
CRISPR is a molecular scalpel that we can use to cut, and therefore replace, just about any DNA sequence in any cell. Encode the instructions for the CRISPR system adjacent to the new sequence, and genome editing will occur in the reproductive cells of subsequent generations of heterozygotes, always converting the original wild-type version to the new edited version. By ensuring that offspring will all be born of one sex, or by arranging for organisms that inherit two copies of the gene drive to be sterile, it's theoretically possible to cause a population crash.
When my colleagues and I first described this technology in 2014, we initially focused on the imperative for early transparency. Gene drive research is more like civic governance than traditional technology development: you can decline a treatment recommended by your doctor, but you canâ€™t opt out when people change the shared environment. Applying the traditional closeted model of science to gene drive actively denies people a voice in decisions intended to affect them - and reforming scientific incentives for gene drive could be the first step to making all of science faster and safer.
But open gene drive research is clearly aligned with virtually all of our values. It's when technology places our deepest moral beliefs in conflict that we struggle, and learn who we truly are.
Two of our strongest moral beliefs include our reverence for the natural world and our abhorrence of suffering. Yet some natural species inherently cause tremendous suffering. Are we morally obligated to alter or even eradicate them?
To anyone who doubts that the natural world can inflict unimaginable suffering, consider the New World screwworm.
Judging by history, the answer depends on who is doing the suffering. We view the eradication of smallpox as one of our greatest triumphs, clearly demonstrating that we value human lives over the existence of disease-causing microorganisms. The same principle holds today for malaria: few would argue against using gene drive to crash populations of malarial mosquitoes to help eradicate the disease. There are more than 3500 species of mosquitoes, only three of which would be affected, and once malaria is gone, the mosquitoes could be allowed to recover. It would be extremely surprising if African nations decided not to eradicate malaria.
The more interesting question concerns our moral obligations to animals in the state of nature.
To anyone who doubts that the natural world can inflict unimaginable suffering, consider the New World screwworm, Cochyliomyia hominivorax. Female screwworm flies lay their eggs in open wounds, generating maggots that devour healthy tissue, gluttonously burrowing into the flesh of their host until they drop, engorged and sated, to metamorphose. Yet before they fall, the maggots in a wound emit a pheromone attracting new females, thereby acting as both conductors and performers in a macabre parade that consumes the host alive. The pain is utterly excruciating, so much so that infested people often require morphine before doctors can even examine the wound. Worst of all, the New World screwworm specializes in devouring complex mammals.
Every second of every day, hundreds of millions of animals suffer the excruciating agony of being eaten alive. It has been so throughout North and South America for millions of years. Until 2001, when humanity eradicated the last screwworm fly north of Panama using the â€œsterile insect techniqueâ€. This was not done to protect wild animals or even people, but for economic reasons: the cost of the program was small relative to the immense damage wrought by the screwworm on North American cattle, sheep, and goats. There were no obvious ecological effects. Despite being almost completely unknown even among animal rights activists, the screwworm elimination campaign may well have been one of the greatest triumphs of animal well-being.
Unfortunately, sterile insect technique isn't powerful enough to eradicate the screwworm from South America, where it is more entrenched and protected by the rougher terrain. But gene drive is.
Contrary to news hype, gene drive alone can't cause extinction, but if combined with conventional measures it might be possible to remove targeted species from the wild. For certain species that cause immense suffering, we may be morally obligated to do just that.
South Americans may well decide to eradicate screwworm for the same economic reasons that it was eradicated from North America: the fly inflicts $4 billion in annual damages on struggling rural communities that can least afford it. It need not go extinct, of course; the existence of the sterile insect facility in Panama proves that we can maintain the screwworm indefinitely in captivity on already dead meat.
Yet if for some reason humanity chooses to leave the screwworm as it is - even for upstanding moral reasons, whatever those may be - the knowledge of our responsibility should haunt us.
Are God and Nature then at strife,
That Nature lends such evil dreams?
So careful of the type she seems,
So careless of the single life.
Evolution by natural selection cares nothing for the single life, nor suffering, nor euphoria, save for their utility in replication. Theoretically, we do. But how much?
[Editor's Note: This story was originally published in May 2018. We are resurfacing archive hits while our staff is on vacation.]
Amber Freed felt she was the happiest mother on earth when she gave birth to twins in March 2017. But that euphoric feeling began to fade over the next few months, as she realized her son wasn't making the same developmental milestones as his sister. "I had a perfect benchmark because they were twins, and I saw that Maxwell was floppy—he didn't have muscle tone and couldn't hold his neck up," she recalls. At first doctors placated her with statements that boys sometimes develop slower than girls, but the difference was just too drastic. At 10 month old, Maxwell had never reached to grab a toy. In fact, he had never even used his hands.
Thinking that perhaps Maxwell couldn't see well, Freed took him to an ophthalmologist who was the first to confirm her worst fears. He didn't find Maxwell to have vision problems, but he thought there was something wrong with the boy's brain. He had seen similar cases before and they always turned out to be rare disorders, and always fatal. "Start preparing yourself for your child not to live," he had said.
Getting the diagnosis took months of painful, invasive procedures, as well as fighting with the health insurance to get the genetic testing approved. Finally, in June 2018, doctors at the Children's Hospital Colorado gave the Freeds their son's diagnosis—a genetic mutation so rare it didn't even have a name, just a bunch of letters jammed together into a word SLC6A1—same as the name of the mutated gene. The mutation, with only 40 cases known worldwide at the time, caused developmental disabilities, movement and speech disorders, and a debilitating form of epilepsy.
The doctors didn't know much about the disorder, but they said that Maxwell would also regress in his development when he turned three or four. They couldn't tell how long he would live. "Hopefully you would become an expert and educate us about it," they said, as they gave Freed a five-page paper on the SLC6A1 and told her to start calling scientists if she wanted to help her son in any way. When she Googled the name, nothing came up. She felt horrified. "Our disease was too rare to care."
Freed's husband, a 6'2'' college football player broke down in sobs and she realized that if anything could be done to help Maxwell, she'd have be the one to do it. "I understood that I had to fight like a mother," she says. "And a determined mother can do a lot of things."
The Freed family.
Courtesy Amber Freed
She quit her job as an equity analyst the day of the diagnosis and became a full-time SLC6A1 citizen scientist looking for researchers studying mutations of this gene. In the wee hours of the morning, she called scientists in Europe. As the day progressed, she called researchers on the East Coast, followed by the West in the afternoon. In the evening, she switched to Asia and Australia. She asked them the same question. "Can you help explain my gene and how do we fix it?"
Scientists need money to do research, so Freed launched Milestones for Maxwell fundraising campaign, and a SLC6A1 Connect patient advocacy nonprofit, dedicated to improving the lives of children and families battling this rare condition. And then it became clear that the mutation wasn't as rare as it seemed. As other parents began to discover her nonprofit, the number of known cases rose from 40 to 100, and later to 400, Freed says. "The disease is only rare until it messes with the wrong mother."
It took one mother to find another to start looking into what's happening inside Maxwell's brain. Freed came across Jeanne Paz, a Gladstone Institutes researcher who studies epilepsy with particular interest in absence or silent seizures—those that don't manifest by convulsions, but rather make patients absently stare into space—and that's one type of seizures Maxwell has. "It's like a brief period of silence in the brain during which the person doesn't pay attention to what's happening, and as soon as they come out of the seizure they are back to life," Paz explains. "It's like a pause button on consciousness." She was working to understand the underlying biology.
To understand how seizures begin, spread and stop, Paz uses optogenetics in mice. From words "genetic" and "optikós," which means visible in Greek, the optogenetics technique involves two steps. First, scientists introduce a light-sensitive gene into a specific brain cell type—for example into excitatory neurons that release glutamate, a neurotransmitter, which activates other cells in the brain. Then they implant a very thin optical fiber into the brain area where they forged these light-sensitive neurons. As they shine the light through the optical fiber, researchers can make excitatory neurons to release glutamate—or instead tell them to stop being active and "shut up". The ability to control what these neurons of interest do, quite literally sheds light onto where seizures start, how they propagate and what cells are involved in stopping them.
"Let's say a seizure started and we shine the light that reduces the activity of specific neurons," Paz explains. "If that stops the seizure, we know that activating those cells was necessary to maintain the seizure." Likewise, shutting down their activity will make the seizure stop.
Freed reached out to Paz in 2019 and the two women had an instant connection. They were both passionate about brain and seizures research, even if for different reasons. Freed asked Paz if she would study her son's seizures and Paz agreed.
To do that, Paz needed mice that carried the SLC6A1 mutation, so Freed found a company in China that created them to specs. The company replaced a mouse SLC6A1 gene with a human mutated one and shipped them over to Paz's lab. "We call them Maxwell mice," Paz says, "and we are now implanting electrodes into them to see which brain regions generate seizures." That would help them understand what goes wrong and what brain cells are malfunctioning in the SLC6A1 mice—and help scientists better understand what might cause seizures in children.
Bred to carry SLC6A1 mutation, these "Maxwell mice" will help better understand this debilitating genetic disease. (These mice are from Vanderbilt University, where researchers are also studying SLC6A1.)
Courtesy Amber Freed
This information—along with other research Amber is funding in other institutions—will inform the development of a novel genetic treatment, in which scientists would deploy a harmless virus to deliver a healthy, working copy of the SLC6A1 gene into the mice brains. They would likely deliver the therapeutic via a spinal tap infusion, and if it works and doesn't produce side effects in mice, the human trials will follow.
In the meantime, Freed is raising money to fund other research of various stop-gap measures. On April 22, 2021, she updated her Milestone for Maxwell page with a post that her nonprofit is funding yet another effort. It is a trial at Weill Cornell Medicine in New York City, in which doctors will use an already FDA-approved drug, which was recently repurposed for the SLC6A1 condition to treat epilepsy in these children. "It will buy us time," Freed says—while the gene therapy effort progresses.
Freed is determined to beat SLC6A1 before it beats down her family. She hopes to put an end to this disease—and similar genetic diseases—once and for all. Her goal is not only to have scientists create a remedy, but also to add the mutation to a newborn screening panel. That way, children born with this condition in the future would receive gene therapy before they even leave the hospital.
"I don't want there to be another Maxwell Freed," she says, "and that's why I am fighting like a mother." The gene therapy trial still might be a few years away, but the Weill Cornell one aims to launch very soon—possibly around Mother's Day. This is yet another milestone for Maxwell, another baby step forward—and the best gift a mother can get.
This virtual event will convene leading scientific and medical experts to discuss the most pressing questions around the COVID-19 vaccines for children and teens. A public Q&A will follow the expert discussion.
Thursday, May 13th, 2021
12:30 p.m. - 1:45 p.m. EDT
Virtual on Zoom
You can submit a question for the speakers upon registering.
Dr. H. Dele Davies, M.D., MHCM
Senior Vice Chancellor for Academic Affairs and Dean for Graduate Studies at the University of Nebraska Medical (UNMC). He is an internationally recognized expert in pediatric infectious diseases and a leader in community health.
Dr. Emily Oster, Ph.D.
Professor of Economics at Brown University. She is a best-selling author and parenting guru who has pioneered a method of assessing school safety.
Dr. Tina Q. Tan, M.D.
Professor of Pediatrics at the Feinberg School of Medicine, Northwestern University. She has been involved in several vaccine survey studies that examine the awareness, acceptance, barriers and utilization of recommended preventative vaccines.
Dr. Inci Yildirim, M.D., Ph.D., M.Sc.
Associate Professor of Pediatrics (Infectious Disease); Medical Director, Transplant Infectious Diseases at Yale School of Medicine; Associate Professor of Global Health, Yale Institute for Global Health. She is an investigator for the multi-institutional COVID-19 Prevention Network's (CoVPN) Moderna mRNA-1273 clinical trial for children 6 months to 12 years of age.
About the Event Series
This event is the second of a four-part series co-hosted by Leaps.org, the Aspen Institute Science & Society Program, and the Sabin–Aspen Vaccine Science & Policy Group, with generous support from the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation and the Howard Hughes Medical Institute.