The awarding of this year’s Nobel Prize for Chemistry to Jennifer Doudna and Emmanuelle Charpentier has been heralded as an incredible step forward for women. For the first time, two female scientists have been honored for an accomplishment without being accompanied by a man.
Also being heralded is the incredible potential of Doudna and Charpentier’s gene-editing technology, CRISPR. Announcing the award, the Secretary-General of the Swedish Royal Academy of Science gushed, “This year’s prize is about rewriting the code of life.”
Doudna has used similar language to describe CRISPR technology, stating “the genome would become as malleable as a piece of literary prose at the mercy of an editor’s red pen.” And, so far, congratulations and praise from fellow scientists includes predictions and speculations that CRISPR will offer humanity new potential to combat all sorts of illnesses and make the world a better place.
Not covered in all the press announcing the award is the danger that CRISPR poses to us all. Consider, for example, the incident in which a Chinese scientist uses CRISPR to edit the genome of embryos before implantation, a move that drew international criticism and gave the world a glimpse of just how this whole thing could go very wrong, was barely mentioned, if at all.
CRISPR has been likened to a computer mouse or pair of genetic scissors. One researcher described, “You can just point it at a place in the genome and you can do anything you want at that spot.” Of course, it’s not quite that simple. Still, the statement reveals the kind of hubris behind the drive to make this technology available, with virtually no ethical guidelines in place.
There seems to be this assumption that, of course, scientists and researchers will “play nice” with the power CRISPR offers. History, of course, tells us that it’s nearly impossible to resist the temptation to “play God” instead. And that never ends well.
Earlier this year, a team of researchers at the Francis Crick Institute in London used CRISPR to edit 18 donated human embryos, supposedly to study “the role of a particular gene in the earliest stages of human development.” The Crick Institute team did everything by the book. Still, despite their best efforts, around half of the embryos contained what researchers called “major unintended edits.” “Major unintended edits” is Newspeak for serious genetic damage, the kind of damage that can lead to birth defects or future medical issues, like cancer.
How did this happen when researchers were so careful to play by the rules? One genetics researcher put it this way: “You’re affecting so much of the DNA around the gene you’re trying to edit that you could be inadvertently affecting other genes and causing problems.”
If these sorts of problems come with researchers playing by the rules and acting out of good intention, what might happen when research is driven by greed or is done in some unregulated environment? Seeing the results from the Crick Institute researchers prompted one molecular biologist to call for “a restraining order for all genome editors to stay the living daylights away from embryo editing.”
Now, a few months later, the Nobel Prize committee has put its official stamp of approval on the technology and its promise to “rewrite the code of life.” Absent regulations with real teeth, there will be no restraining order coming.
There’s an ironic connection here to historic origins of the Nobel Prize. Alfred Nobel was the inventor of dynamite. He hoped and intended for his invention to be used for blasting rocks apart. Instead, it was used to blast people apart.
When Alfred’s brother died, a French newspaper, mistakenly believing that it was Alfred who had died, proclaimed “The Merchant of Death is Dead!” Appalled by the reputation his invention brought to him, Nobel established the Nobel Prizes, including the Nobel Peace Prize, hoping his legacy would be a better world instead of death and suffering.
By awarding the prize to the inventors of CRISPR, the committee is repeating Nobel’s history and turning his intentions on their head. Like dynamite, whatever legitimate potential CRISPR holds will operate alongside of even greater potential for harm. And, it’s not regulated anywhere near the degree that dynamite is.
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