To no one’s surprise, the Nobel Prize in Chemistry was awarded this year to Emmanuelle Charpentier and Jennifer A. Doudna for their 2012 discovery of CRISPR/Cas9 genetic scissors.
This development allows scientists to do precision editing of the DNA of animals, plants and microorganisms. “This technology has had a revolutionary impact on the life sciences, is contributing to new cancer therapies and may make the dream of curing inherited diseases come true,” says the Nobel committee. “These genetic scissors have taken the life sciences into a new epoch and, in many ways, are bringing the greatest benefit to humankind.”
Amongst CRISPR’s most ethically contentious applications is editing the human germline, which could lead to manipulating human abilities and even to a “new” human species. At the moment this is science fiction – but no longer purely science fiction.
Doudna, who works at the University of California Berkeley, is not opposed to such developments in theory.
After the announcement of the award, she told journalist Emily Mullin:
I don’t think it needs to be completely off-limits. I was pretty pleased with the recent report that came out from the National Academies and the U.K. Royal Society that recommends a kind of a measured approach to developing the technology for use in the human germline. They’re encouraging research to understand how the technology works in embryos.
First, the technology will need to be proven safe. Secondly, any clinical use [to establish a pregnancy] would need to be restricted to cases of serious genetic disease where there are few or no other options to treat the disease. I think those are both pretty high bars. Those situations are pretty rare. I personally think there are more viable strategies today, like embryo screening and selection in an IVF (in vitro fertilization) clinic, rather than using genome editing.
Some experts seem more worried about the CRISPR. The French site Gènéthique sought a comment from Jean-Marie Le Méné, president of the Jérôme Lejeune Foundation. He foresees a deep cultural problem:
The easy way out is to say that the technique is neutral and that only its use can pose a moral problem. Jacques Ellul has shown on the contrary that the technique has its own logic, powerful and autonomous, which is that of efficiency. It is therefore wrong to claim that technology is only a means. The end it serves imposes its morality. What serves efficiency is good, what serves it bad. Assigning the CRISPR tool the demiurgic purpose of "rewriting the code of life" is in line with the logic of efficiency which is the insane moral of the technique ".
And Monica Lopez Barahona, of the Madrid Center for Bioscience Studies, emphasized human dignity:
“The limit of the use of the CRISPR technique cannot be the imagination, but rather the dignity of the human being. This is why genome editing may be fair when used in somatic cells, but is not acceptable if used on gametes or embryos. We must take into account the consequences of this technique depending on where it is applied”.
Michael Cook is editor of BioEdge
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