Designer babies. Super soldiers. Unstable ecosystems. These are just a few of the feared outcomes from uncontrolled application of the new gene-editing technology known as “CRISPR.” Short for “Clustered, Regularly Interspaced, Short Palindromic Repeats,” CRISPR makes it possible to disable, replace, or insert specific genes with relative ease, and it is being hailed as possibly this century’s medical-breakthrough equivalent of the vaccine.
While few would object to using technology to cure devastating illnesses like HIV or cancer, CRISPR can potentially alter the health, appearance, and behavior of any life form. When those changes are made to egg and sperm cells, they can be passed on to future generations, raising the specter of scientists creating a race of genetically enhanced super humans.
Concerns about germline applications are further heightened by CRISPR’s ability to power so-called “gene drives” that override normal patterns of inheritance and force genes to be passed on to offspring. As recently explained in a New Yorker profile of Kevin Esvelt, one of the inventors of CRISPR-facilitated gene drives, this technology can be used to engineer the extinction of entire species.
The potential applications of CRISPR to alter future generations in unpredictable and ethically unacceptable ways has led an international group of scientists and ethicists to convene for the purpose of coordinating policy responses. Meanwhile, a National Academy of Sciences committee is in the process of gathering information for the purpose of guiding U.S. decision making.
The Broad Institute owns what are considered to be the foundational patents on CRISPR, and its recent license of those patents to Monsanto demonstrates how private licenses can be used to complement public policy efforts. According to that license, Monsanto may use the Broad’s CRISPR patents for agricultural purposes but not to (1) conduct gene drives, (2) create sterile “terminator” seeds that farmers would be forced to buy new every year, or (3) conduct research to commercialize tobacco products.
In our recent Nature Biotechnology article, “The Rise of the Ethical License,” my colleagues and I explore the broader use of patent-facilitated bans on controversial technological applications. Although some innovators may not be motivated to negotiate or enforce such restrictions, the advantages of private over public bans—including greater efficiency, tailoring, and buy-in—convince us that they should be included in the conversations taking place about how to curb ethically troubling applications of CRISPR.
We also believe innovators should follow the Broad Institute’s lead and adopt the practice of using patent licenses to restrict socially harmful applications of their technologies. To be clear, we do not mean to suggest that licensing bans are preferable to, or should be used to the exclusion of, policymaking or professional standards setting. Rather, we believe that the promotion of private efforts as a complement to public efforts is worthy of serious consideration.
-By Christi Guerrini, J.D., instructor in the Center for Medical Ethics and Health Policy at Baylor College of Medicine