By: Kaitlyn Lapen
Depending on the bioethical theory in which the many uses of CRISPR-Cas9 are framed, several different conclusions on the ethics of this technology can be reached. Through the lens of utilitarianism, which gives precedence to actions that promote the most amount of good for the most people, CRISPR-Cas9 would likely be seen as favorable because many worthwhile medical advances could come from its use. For example, CRISPR-Cas9 could assist in the treatment of autoimmune diseases and cancer by providing researchers a more efficient tool to edit human T-cells, a vital component of the immune system. T-cell engineering has already been used to save the lives of many adults and children with end stage leukemia. CRISPR-Cas9 could make this form of treatment more available and accessible to a wider patient population.
Another potentially beneficial use of CRISPR-Cas9 is the use of pigs to grow human organs. Some researchers believe CRISPR-Cas9 could be used to alter multiple genes in pig organs so that they would resemble human organs and be useful when transplanted. This technique would help solve the problem of not having enough organs to meet the needs of transplant patients. However while these uses may be beneficial, the CRISPR-Cas9 technology may appear less favorable when used for other types of research.
Another perspective that should be used to evaluate the ethics of CRISPR-Cas9 is that of the disability community. Several researchers, including Guoping Feng and his team at M.I.T., plan to use CRISPR to engineer monkeys with genetic alterations that cause them to develop autism. From their work, these researchers hope to develop a cure for autism, as their end-goal is to eliminate the condition. For many members of the disability community this is their worst fear; many believe that rather than viewing autism as a disease in need of research, autism should be seen as a “cognitive difference that requires no treatment or intervention but rather social acceptance and support.” In addition to the technology’s influence on autism, the disability community fears that CRISPR-Cas9 could be used to eliminate other conditions linked to genetic anomalies. Several fear that the growing use of CRISPR-Cas9 could amount to eugenics, “the positive selection of ‘good’ versions of the human genome and the weeding out of ‘bad’ versions.” From the perspective of the disability community several conditions that are targets of genetic research add to the diversity of society and are of high value, making the prospects that they could be eliminated or weeded out unthinkable.
With CRISPR-Cas9 gaining widespread use, it is important to step back and evaluate the ethical questions that accompany the technology’s many diverse uses. For bioethicists, the benefits that could come from the new technology are apparent but the newness of CRISPR-Cas9 and the uncertainties that come with its use leave many worried about how safe it is and the harm it could cause. Members of the disability community fear CRISPR-Cas9 could be used to eliminate valued diversity. Because CRISPR-Cas9 has not yet been approved for use on viable human embryos, many of the concerns that have arisen pertaining to its use are hypothetical. Only time will tell if CRISPR-Cas9 becomes used to modify human embryos, eradicate malaria, or eliminate autism; as the technology evolves so will its ethical implications.
1. Cong, L., Ran, F. A., Cox, D., Lin, S., Barretto, R., Habib, N., ... & Zhang, F. (2013). Multiplex genome engineering using CRISPR-Cas9 systems. Science, 339(6121), 819-823.
2. Specter, M. (2015, November 16). The gene hackers: A powerful new technology enables us to manipulate our DNA more easily than ever before. The New Yorker.
3. Ledford, H. (2015). CRISPR, the disruptor. Nature, 522(7554), 20-24.
4. Vaughn, L. (2013). Bioethics principles, issues, and cases (2nd ed.). New York, NY: Oxford University Press.
5. Schumann, K., Lin, S., Boyer, E., Simeonov, D. R., Subramaniam, M., Gate, R. E., ... & Marson, A. (2015). Generation of knock-in primary human T cells using Cas9 ribonucleoproteins. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 112(33), 10437-10442.
6. Grady, D. (2012, December 9). In girl’s last hope, altered immune cells beat leukemia. New York Times.
7. Kahn, J. (2015, November 9). The crispr quandary. New York Times Magazine.
8. Cyranoski, D., & Reardon, S. (2015). Embryo editing sparks epic debate. Nature, 520, 593-595.
9. Liang, P., Xu, Y., Zhang, X., Ding, C., Huang, R., Zhang, Z., ... & Sun, Y. (2015). CRISPR-Cas9-mediated gene editing in human tripronuclear zygotes. Protein & Cell, 6, 363-372.
10. Wright, J. (2015, December 14). ‘CRISPR’ way to cut genes speeds advances in autism. Spectrum, News.
11. Walsh, P., Elsabbagh, M., Bolton, P., & Singh, I. (2011). In search of biomarkers for autism: scientific, social and ethical challenges. Nature Reviews Neuroscience, 12(10), 603-612.
12. Hayden, E. C. (2016). Tomorrow’s children: What would genome editing really mean for future generations? Nature, 530(7591), 402-405.
13. Pollack, R. (2015). Eugenics lurk in the shadow of CRISPR. Science, 348(6237), 871.