The Dilemmas of Gene Editing

A Crack in Creation begins the dialogue on the ethics of gene editing and the policies we need.

The technology known as CRISPR-cas9 needs no introduction. Over the past couple of years, this gene editing technology has captured the world’s imagination and divided opinion in equal measure. It has also raised some important questions about how policies must look at path breaking scientific developments, particularly when no precedents exist for us to rely on. This is a conversation we are still having.

The publication of A Crack in Creation: The New Power to Control Evolution is an important part of this conversation. The principal author of this book, Jennifer Doudna, is credited as one of the scientists who discovered CRISPR. This sets the book apart from a mere reportage of scientific developments from afar. This is a personal account, one that is accentuated by the liberal use of the first person narrative. And while it is no pot-boiler, with its sedate pace and measured language, it does a remarkable job of being accessible. Given the technical nature of the subject matter, this is no mean feat.

The first part of the book focuses on the journey that led to the recognition of CRISPR as a powerful technological tool. Two aspects stand out: the extent to which the scientific development is iterative and collaborative. It is iterative because your findings as a scientist owe a debt to the work of generations of your forebears in the scientific community. CRISPR might be a new entrant to the field of gene editing but it follows a long tradition of understanding how the genome functions and how one can influence its working. It is also collaborative because the notion of a lone scientist employing his genius to discover something new is a false one. In reality, several individuals and institutions the world over were instrumental in discovering CRISPR.

These two features of scientific development are brought into relief towards the end when Doudna makes a compelling case for the pursuit of scientific knowledge. She says that curiosity driven research, building on what we know and working with other like-minded individuals, is desirable. More often than not, it leads to developments that improve the quality of the lives we lead. There is an almost moral responsibility to provide science with the space to test the boundaries of what we know.

The second part of the book, which scrutinises the fallout from the discovery of CRISPR, challenges these thoughts. In particular, the application of CRISPR in human germline modification, the process by which changes from gene editing are made heritable, has been met with a great deal of consternation. The opposition relies on several fears, from the spectre of eugenics and designer babies to issues of consent and the rights of the disabled. All of this makes Doudna question her work, wondering if she has opened a can of worms that can no longer be contained. There are even a few Frankenstein references sprinkled amongst the text to drive home this point.

It would have been easy to seek refuge in this self-flagellation. However, Doudna’s approach to this dilemma is refreshing. The introspection which she engages in is the book’s greatest strength. It delivers an insight that is simple but important: the scientific community must engage more with the wider public. This perspective, coming as it does from a scientist, is a crucial part of the answer to the question posed earlier. Any policy that regulates new scientific developments must get the scientists on board.

This is not an easy task to accomplish. As the book notes, scientists are comfortable talking to other scientists, not the general public. This leads to a lack of transparency when it comes to the potential benefits and perils of new developments. The perils get exaggerated and scientific developments that could have helped people are shunted to the sidelines. One need only look at the fate of genetically modified (GM) crops in India to understand this. And as seen with GM crops, the underlying technology eventually becomes tainted and then no amount of scientific wisdom can sway public opinion. The recent fiasco with GM mustard is ample evidence of this.

This is a sobering thought. It is also a cause for optimism when it comes to CRISPR, for this technology is still novel enough that the general public can be educated about its virtues. A landmark conference on gene editing that was conducted in December 2015 is emblematic of this greater public engagement. It was attended by scientists, ethicists, lawyers, public policy professionals, physicians and disability rights activists, among others. Then there is the book itself, an account of a scientist’s journey that looks at both the science and the way that science can impact people’s lives. If more such accounts are out in the world for the public to consume, one can be hopeful for the future of radical scientific developments.