Jennifer Doudna has called for a Global Pause. CRISPR CAS9 is her genetic engineering tool which has potentially changed the course of the future forever. The enormous potential for both good and bad that the technology poses, is being debated. ‘Can humans be trusted with the power that is genetic engineering?’. In other words, should we play god? A number of start-ups and countries are already looking very hard at this technology, but how do we, as the global community, regulate the developing research? How do we decide what path we want to go down? It is up to us to educate ourselves on this technology and voice our opinion. The world needs to figure it out, now.
WHAT IS IT?
Basically, CRISPR CAS9 gives the ability to find a genetic mutation, cut it and repair or re-design the DNA. CRISPR is also a gene drive, and once a gene drive is released into the ecosystem it replicates into every subsequent offspring.
PROs of CRISPR engineering
Cells are still a black box. We have little idea why DNA or RNA do what they do. CRISPR technology gives the means to find out, creating a means for the human race to further its development as a species. At this present moment CRISPR engineering can develop DNA research, make mosquitos malaria resistant and model diseases in animals. We are still years away from designer humans or giving pigs wings. However, with great power (technology) comes huge responsibility. This is no longer science fiction. Will everyone be safe and smart while conducting the research?
For example, could we accidentally release a genetically modified animal into the wild and disrupt the ecosystem? What about testing on humans? How do you do that ethically?
What are options for action? The globe needs to pause and discuss whether this technology could lead to unintended impacts and long-term implications. The developing research cannot be banned or stifled as that has been proven to lead to unsafe practice or being used wrongly.
The Utilitarianism Theory is “where the action that brings happiness to the greatest number of people, should be chosen.” It suggests if we can use this technology correctly and for good, to evolve further or just to better humanity, then development should not be halted, just heavily regulated.
Improving Food Production
Improving the food production system would be of benefit to humanity. Our current food crisis is caused by the inefficiency of food production in the context of population increase and reduced land availability which is also detrimental to the environment. CRISPR technology in agriculture is attractive because of the potential economic and efficiency advantages. For example, crops susceptibility to decay/browning. Consider this; mushrooms are sensitive to physical collision which activates browning enzymes. These enzymes accelerate the deterioration of mushrooms. In theory, we can engineer the activity of the enzymes to prevent the browning response thus removing the shortcoming of the crop. Critics of biotechnology in food, consider any form of genetic modification as likely to cause unexpected mutations, thereby posing a threat to human health and/or the ecosystem. The implementation requires much testing, development and global consideration before releasing any altered genes. By Kant’s theory; “for an action to be permissible it must be applied to everyone without a contradiction occurring.” Improving the quality and efficiency of food production in terms of the environment and feeding more people is a positive impact that should be seriously considered as a promising course of action.
CONs of CRISPR ENGINEERING
War on Humanity
Many scientific communities are conducting studies that have a direct effect on the progression and understanding of the capabilities of this CRISPR. As is the nature of genes, all of us would be affected by this technology whether we choose to accept it or not. But the main question here is will this technology doom us or save us? It should be mentioned that CRISPR has been classified as a weapon of mass destruction. It is postulated that (well into the future) gene alteration could lead to stronger humans who could be used as weapons in the wrong hands. A possible action to be taken is to ban any further human development in CRISPR. If we apply the freedom principle to the first option, we can conclude that progress of CRISPR will hinder the pleasure of living in a safe world.
Control and Patent Issue
Also to be considered is who will control this technology? Currently, the University of Berkeley (Doudna) and Broad Institute (Zhang) are in a major patent war over CRISPR. A patent will give the right to exploit the availability of the technology. A possible outcome is that the medical benefits of CRISPR might not be affordable. People with a lower standard of living will be at a disadvantage. In a futuristic example, the rich could modify themselves to be smarter, which gives an advantage in careers or education. A suitable course of action would be to assign a panel which supervises equality of integration, similar to the panel which supervises doping. If we apply the concept of Utilitarianism, we conclude that this solution will bring about happiness to the greatest number of people, since it will ensure that no one will gain an unfair advantage.
Lack of Human Testing
Gene research is currently being undertaken on animals. However; these results do not translate to humans and so there is the ethical dilemma of testing this immature technology on people. Before CRISPR can be introduced in human use, careful, long-term, interdisciplinary research with sufficient evidence of safety is needed. A consequential dilemma is that disadvantaged people may be exploited by reward to give up their bodies for potentially harmful research. This course of action potentially violates the Freedom Principle “where no action by a person must hinder another’s happiness”. The subjects for experiment might perceive they have no choice due to their destitution, and could experience detrimental side effects. Another option for action is to prohibit the testing on humans. Which protects human subjects form ill effects but inhibits scientific progress for the benefit of society. Applying the Utilitarianism theory the option of individuals choosing to be subjects should be considered as long as they are not under duress.
The global/scientific community has recognised that CRISPR poses an ethical dilemma. These arguments need to be discussed openly and wholeheartedly before further developments are made. It is up to us to make sure this technology is seen positively and is developed for good. The future is knocking so loudly, it’s deafening. But a pause has been made. Will you contribute to the conversation?
Group 28: Maddison Fisher, Tao Song, Xinyun Zeng, Sahl Abdelsayed