Friday, March 20, 2015


CRISPR Cas 9 is a new technique to cut and splice genes. We had written about it about a year ago regarding its use in cancer treatment and also regarding the patent so quickly issues. Now David Baltimore, a highly respected scientist, and colleagues have in Science suggested a prudent set of steps as to its use in humans. It is reminiscent of the concerns some 49 years ago regarding recombinant DNA.

Baltimore et al recommend:

In the near term, we recommend that steps be taken to:

1) Strongly discourage, even in those countries with lax jurisdictions where it might be permitted, any attempts at germline genome modification for clinical application in humans, while societal, environmental, and ethical implications of such activity are discussed among scientific and governmental organizations. (In countries with a highly developed bioscience capacity, germline genome modification in humans is currently illegal or tightly regulated.) This will enable pathways to responsible uses of this technology, if any, to be identified. 

2) Create forums in which experts from the scientific and bioethics communities can provide information and education about this new era of human biology, the issues accompanying the risks and rewards of using such powerful technology for a wide variety of applications including the potential to treat or cure human genetic disease, and the attendant ethical, social, and legal implications of genome modification. 

3) Encourage and support transparent research to evaluate the efficacy and specificity of CRISPR-Cas9 genome engineering technology in human and nonhuman model systems relevant to its potential applications for germline gene therapy. Such research is essential to inform deliberations about what clinical applications, if any, might in the future be deemed permissible. 

4) Convene a globally representative group of developers and users of genome engineering technology and experts in genetics, law, and bioethics, as well as members of the scientific community, the public, and relevant government agencies and interest groups—to further consider these important issues, and where appropriate, recommend policies.

 Baltimore et al have a point. Not only can this be significant on a person by person basis but it also has the potential to be weaponiozed. The technology is out there, thousands are now proficient in it, the cost is low and the means for distribution is high.

Clearly a sensible effort in collaboration with others is essential. The problem is that with much of science, the genie is out of the box.