The journal Science named “CRISPR” the “breakthrough of the year” for 2015. What is CRISPR, and what challenges could it pose to building a Culture of Life?
“CRISPR” is an acronym for a new biotech tool scientists developed in 2012-2013 by harnessing two features that Strep bacteria use to fight viruses: first, an ability to reliably identify specific strands of DNA, and second, an ability to use enzymes to cut such strands at precise points. CRISPR is the most powerful gene editing tool yet, theoretically able to accurately identify, cut, and replace more than one gene at a time in DNA — including human DNA.
Over 30 years ago, in developing ethical and procedural proposals to begin genetic engineering, scientists distinguished between using genetic engineering for therapy and for enhancing human traits. An additional distinction was drawn between inducing genetic changes in individuals (somatic cell) and creating genetic changes that could be passed down to future generations (germ line). Somatic cell gene therapy was widely embraced in principle — including by Pope St. John Paul II in 1983 — while germ line genetic engineering was outlawed by a number of countries and taken off the table in the United States.
Yet few human diseases have been successfully treated with somatic cell gene therapy, in part due to the challenge of delivering replacement genes with precision. Scientists tried everything from disabled retroviruses to “gene guns” shooting gold particles coated with DNA. Now CRISPR appears to overcome this hurdle — well enough, some argue, to safely introduce changes into the human germ line.
Indeed, CRISPR hit the headlines in early 2015 when Chinese researchers tested it on human embryos. While many in the scientific community greeted news of this unethical experiment with angst and even outrage, influential scientists, journals, and bioethicists called for additional research and discussion.
Last December, the National Academies of Science of the U.S., the U.K., and China held a summit about CRISPR in Washington, D.C. Their closing statement favored use of CRISPR in somatic cell therapies and research into human germ line applications, but stopped short of endorsing clinical applications to the human germ line — for the time being. Meanwhile, CRISPR’s impact is being felt outside of laboratories and conferences. I met late last fall with a financial analyst who told me that CRISPR was the hot new topic at venture capital meetings.
Catholics are called to be leaven, salt, and light in a fallen world. Catholics can and should be leaders in the ethical debate and the scientific development of CRISPR. If indeed practical (reliability and safety) obstacles to significant genetic engineering are soon to be overcome, it’s more important than ever to be clear on issues of principle.
Some issues of principle are clear. The potential abuse of technology does not rule out legitimate use — and there are clear ethical and practical uses of CRISPR. For example, it can be used to quickly create lab animals to study diseases, to control rather than change genes (for example, to “turn on” some genes to grow heart muscles after a heart attack), and to enhance the effectiveness of ethical stem-cell therapies.
Some moral harms are clearly and widely rejected. Eugenics is almost universally condemned, as is employing technology to exacerbate social disparities. And Catholics should faithfully apply John Paul II’s clear teachings regarding respect for the dignity of every human life (including at the embryonic stage) in research and treatment.
However, some ethical issues raised by CRISPR have not yet been comprehensively examined or defined by the Church. What if gene editing or control can be used to promote human health in new or better ways, for example, by replacing vaccines in providing immunity? Questions like these require new and careful discernment.
Finally, Catholics need to bring an enhanced level of prudence to respond to the enhanced powers this new technology provides. There is no doubt that CRISPR will fuel substantial personal and cultural temptations. It’s being celebrated as a scientific game-changer. Some scientists will be tempted to fight against limits on their work, and ordinary people will be tempted to use technology to meet deeply felt human needs or to advance their children with the continuous growth of the reproductive technology industry.
Catholics need to be aware of what CRISPR is and how it can affect science and society. We should encourage greater regulation of research, particularly research on human embryos. We should also renew our efforts to form students in the Church’s moral vision of the human person, science and society.
JOHN F. BREHANY, PH.D., S.T.L. is the National Catholic Bioethics Center’s director of institutional relations.