Gene editing: are we moving too fast?

November 3RD, 2018 | hUI wEN zHENG


lead organizer: bENJAMIN lEVY

aSSISTS: SANAYA rau, ethan strathdee, olivia smith

A full-house gathered in the Hart House Debates Room on October 30th for the Debates & Dialogue Committee’s highly anticipated event on the ethics of gene editing. The panel for the night was composed of prolific scientists from the CRISPR/Cas9 field, Dr. Kevin Esvelt of MIT and Dr. Karen Maxwell of UofT. The infamous Dr. Josiah Zayner completed the panel and broke with the tone of caution, calling for accessible gene editing throughout the event. The night’s conversation shifted between ethics and the current realities of CRISPR technology, and UofT pHD candidate Samantha Yammie was able to moderate the event with grace by explaining the science behind CRISPR clearly, as well as raising important philosophical questions.

Maxwell set up the background of the event by explaining how CRISPR became so popular in our current scientific discourse. She explained that the unique financial accessibility of CRISPR gene editing, as compared to the previous Talen method, has made the technology extremely accessible to labs — an edit costs as little as $20 to do. This has resulted in incredible uptake of this technology; since its discovery, an average of 10 scientific papers have been published per day utilizing CRISPR. This has set the stage for the rapid rate of progress that have pushed both science and ethics.

On ethics, no other voice has been pushing for greater progress and availability of CRISPR than Zayner, and he made his opinion clear from the outset by quoting Darwin: “If our poor and our sick suffer not because of nature but because of our institutions, Great is our sin”. To him, gene editing opens up endless doors to cure human suffering at an affordable price, and for our institutions to impose rules and boundaries on it would be unethical. He cites the example of Luxturna, a US drugmaker’s gene therapy cure for blindness that is valued at almost $1 million, as an example of the unacceptable status quo.

Esvelt broadened the discussion to encompass the implications of CRISPR when applied to alter entire species through germ-line editing. He brought up the existence of gene drives — genes that have a higher likelihood of being inherited — and how gene editing could create certain gene drives that can change the entire genetic composition of a species. He posed the question to the audience of whether they think their dog could fight a wolf to an obvious “no”. This highlighted his point that gene editing at the hands of humans will always fall behind natural selection, so when CRISPR creates new gene drives that spread quickly in a wild population, it may have broad ecological impacts. While changes in the DNA of mosquitoes and tick-carrying mice could lead to the reduction of malaria and Lyme disease, unmindful edits may result in ecological harm.

When discussing the types of policies that need to govern CRISPR, Esvelt made the case for open research, without a profit drive that necessitates secrecy like our current pharmaceutical industry. To Zayner, because the line between what we could categorise as a cosmetic procedure or a health procedure is thin, everyone should have the capability to decide for themselves and do both. Maxwell countered this idea by pointing out the health risks associated with uninformed gene editing, and raised the need for a regulatory committee.

Further ethical questions were raised during the audience Q&A about the possibility of losing out on psychological diversity, patenting, and disability rights. While each panelist had their own conceptions of human nature and the likelihood that gene editing would dare to touch those topics, the resounding agreement was that the ethical discussion surrounding gene editing must continue because its impacts will affect everyone.