Tuesday, July 12, 2016

The Disturbing Dual-Use Of Gene Editing

From Activist Post:

Dual-use may be best understood by considering the functions of a knife. Used against an enemy, a knife can be deadly. In the hands of a skilled surgeon, a knife may be life-saving, removing a gangrenous appendage or excising a cancerous mass.

Wikipedia defines dual-use this way: “In politics and diplomacy, dual-use is technology that can be used for both peaceful and military aims. More generally speaking, dual-use can also refer to any technology which can satisfy more than one goal at any given time.”

Behind the debate over the Iran nuclear deal lurked the dual-use issue. On the one hand, there were those claiming that Iran had every right to develop nuclear power in pursuit of peaceful aims. In the other camp were those who maintained that possession of nuclear technology was a path towards developing nuclear weapons, and in the hands of a regime hostile to America’s purported friend and ally, Israel, was too dangerous to be allowed to manifest.

Dual-use has implications reaching beyond nuclear science. Those watching the development of what is termed “biodefense” are uncomfortably aware that the production of countermeasures for biological weapons also necessitates the development and possession of the weapon itself. Increasingly, accusations are being levied that countermeasure research may be a “cover” for weapons development.

In the biological sciences, the debate concerning dual-use technology just ramped up a notch.

Recently, the office of the US Director of National Intelligence issued a report declaring that genome editing constituted a “weapon of mass destruction.” Stated the report: “Given the broad distribution, low cost, and accelerated pace of development of this dual-use technology, its deliberate or unintentional misuse might lead to far-reaching economic and national security implications.”

Although the report did not cite Crispr-Cas9 by name, the reference to this gene editing tool was clear. The Crispr-Cas9 was developed in 2012 by Jennifer Doudna, a Berkeley professor of biochemistry and molecular biology and is considered revolutionary in its potential impact on life sciences. Cheap (one can acquire the components for $60 online) and easy to use, the Crisp-Cas9 allows scientists to edit genes in order to correct genetic illnesses.

Applied to the human germline, however, some darker concerns emerge. “Germline editing” would impact those cells which would transmit the alterations to future generations. And it is this potential that has Director of National Intelligence James Clapper worried.

For not only can the Crispr-Cas9 replace cells which are causing illness; it can also be used in editing heritable cells in embryos which will pass on the changes. It is now possible for scientists (and whomever else has the 60 bucks) to create a new “line” of human beings. And here potentially lies the dual-use conundrum of Crispr-Cas9.

The office of the DNI declined to comment further on the inclusion of germline editing as a potential “weapon of mass destruction.” However, the DNI report contains some language that deserves further scrutiny and elucidates why this technology has hit the intelligence community’s radar.

According to the DNI report,

Research in genome editing conducted by countries with different regulatory or ethical standards than those of Western countries probably increases the risk of the creation of potentially harmful biological agents or products.

The regulatory standards of Western countries, however, do not necessarily prohibit this kind of research.

While Great Britain is often cited as having laws which prohibit germline editing, the British government permits, at its discretion, this research. Recently, TIME Magazine reported that Great Britain has given the green light to a germline editing research project. According to TIME, “The U.K.’s Human Fertilization and Embryo Authority (HFEA) decided to approve a researcher’s request to use Crispr to permanently change DNA in a human embryo.”

The project, which is launched by the Francis Crick Institute, is specifically a research-only project, we are told. “I promise you she has no intention of the embryos ever being put back into a woman for development,” Robin Lovell-Badge, group leader at the Crick Institute, told TIME.”

Germline editing got a big dose of publicity last year, when it was reported that researchers in China had accomplished germ-line editing on embryos, also without implanting the embryos. As a result, an international summit was called last December, for the purposes of examining the ethics of this technology. The summit, which took place in Washington, DC, issued a statement which fell short of condemning this research. Instead, the summit asserted that the technical and ethical issues should be settled before anyone attempts to edit the human germline.

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