CRISPR – Where Does The Law Step In?

September 22, 2017

The big technological innovation that continues to dominate the headlines is CRISPR (clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats). If you are not already familiar with CRISPR it is time to take notice. The following article provides a brief breakdown of CRISPR, for those of us without a science background, and is followed by a discussion of the issues regarding CRISPR regulation.
CRISPR: The Basics
CRISPR is a gene editing tool that enables [scientists] to quickly alter, re-arrange, or delete the DNA of any living organism (as far as we know). CRISPR is a cause for celebration, with its potential to cure genetic disease, or eradicate starvation, humans are now one step closer to playing God. The elation scientists felt from this breakthrough is rightfully substantiated; however, the tremendous amount of power and change made possible by CRISPR holds catastrophic implications.
The Good
Let’s first discuss the recent and positive events in CRISPR news. On August 29, 2017, Stanford University School of Medicine introduced gamification to accelerate the progress of CRISPR. Researchers are expecting 100,000 players to contribute 10 solutions each in an attempt to crowd source a CRISPR on/off switch. In just the past month, CRISPR has given hope to individuals affected by sickle cell anemia, successfully edited human embryos, and created mutant ants. Previously, other momentous CRISPR events have showcased the power and potential of CRISPR, including China’s use of CRISPR to combat cancer and Temple University’s scientists cutting out HIV genes in live animals.
The Bad
            Now that we can grapple with just how powerful CRISPR is, it is not hard to fathom just how dangerous this is. CRISPR is capable of changing evolution, for better or for worse. CRISPR could easily be utilized to create weapons of mass destruction in as many ways as one could possibly imagine. It would be grossly negligent to assume terrorists or dangerous foreign state would not obtain and attempt to weaponize CRISPR, especially considering do-it-yourself CRISPR kits are commercially available for less than $150.

Even in a hypothetical world comprised of only the best intentions, the availability of CRISPR could foreseeably drive a larger wedge between socioeconomic classes. Those with greater financial means and access to CRISPR would essentially create an elite class of superhumans among the lower economic class without the same means to access CRISPR.

What if one foreign state does not abide by hypothetical CRISPR rules and regulations that the rest of the globe is adhering to?
Regulation: How Far Do We Go?
I would find it highly unlikely that many individuals would disagree for the need to regulate something that can literally change the DNA of another human being. Regulations and ethics have been discussed ad nauseam since CRISPR took off, and for good reason. When discussing regulation of CRISPR I see a lose-lose scenario. In a vacuum, if the globe agreed to a highly regulated doctrine limiting the applicability of CRISPR, the world could remain safe and even that of a much better place before CRISPR. But, we do not live in a vacuum. It is unfathomable to me that there is such a way to catch any misuse of CRISPR in the most regulated and comprehensive agreement between nations and individuals. Individuals, countries, not everyone will play by the same rules, and what impact does this leave us with? It could lead to a powerful state with a major advantage over the rest of the population, obliterating an arms race that never even took place because one foreign entity didn’t play by the rules. It could lead to certain individuals bypass regulations and using it for evil. It could even lead us to a select population of individuals with the best intentions who were born superhuman and are given an unequal playing field in whatever aspect of life they choose to pursue.
On the flipside of this is the idea of little regulation, something along the lines of safety regulations so individuals are not harmed in the process; but, are given the choice of how far they wish to take CRISPR. This could present the same issues found within a universal regulation; but, it could prevent an unfair advantage in an arms race akin to that of a nuclear arms race.
A great option does not exist when it comes to the issue of regulating CRISPR. But, barring another way, the best option seems to be the creation of universal doctrine and comprehensive oversight across the globe. I envision something as far reaching as a global system of checks and balances with active monitoring for each child birth within a healthcare entity. If somehow this captures the majority of individuals… the greatest flaw in such a universal regulation is the dependence on everyone playing by the rules, and no one should ever anticipate that to happen.