Tackling the CRISPR Debate

Perspectives in Biology & Medicine has dedicated its entire Winter 2020 issue to exploring the complex and contentious issue of CRISPR gene editing. In light of the timely nature of the topic, three articles from the issue have been made freely available online prior to the journal’s official publication. Once published, the entire issue will be freely available for three months online via Project MUSE. The issue’s guest editor, Neal Baer, M.D., is an Emmy-nominated television producer and pediatrician. Dr. Baer explores the potentially harmful uses of CRISPR on Designated Survivor, a Netflix series he writes and produces.

CRISPR (clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats) is a genome-editing tool that allows researchers to alter DNA sequences and modify gene function. The technology has been at the forefront of scientific and public debate following the announcement in November 2018 that a Chinese researcher successfully altered the genes of human embryos that resulted in the birth of twin girls. He Jiankui’s announcement at the Second International Summit on Human Genome Editing sent shockwaves across the scientific community and ignited a firestorm of criticism that his work crossed moral and ethical boundaries.

CRISPR has provided scientists a low cost and freely available technology to alter DNA in plants and animals. Recent advancements in the technology have resulted in an explosion of experimentation, with goals as varied as improving the crop yields of rice to curing lung cancer. Where many scientists take issue, though, is the use of CRISPR to alter the germline - introducing heritable changes to sperm, eggs or embryos that will be passed down to future generations.  The ramifications of such permanent alterations are unknown, and the use of CRISPR to change an organism’s DNA in perpetuity is unchartered scientific and ethical territory.

The essays in the issue were being finalized when news broke that He Jiankui had been sentenced to three years in prison for “illegal medical practice” by Chinese courts. Dr. Baer, as well as several contributing authors, updated their contributions to the journal in response to the sentencing.

Essays in the issue include an introduction from George Q. Daley, Dean of Harvard Medical School; a perspective from UC San Francisco Cardiologist Ethan Weiss, whose daughter, Ruthie, was born with albinism; as well as bioethicist Benjamin Hurlbut, who has been in regular communication with Dr. He prior to and since his startling announcement.

“We have reached the point where CRISPR technology can now be used for both good and evil,” said Dr. Baer. “Ben Hurlbut writes an incisive wake-up call, imploring us to carefully consider how we should move forward with CRISPR technology.  In a stunning series of revelations, he presents new information on the history leading up to Dr. He’s germline mutation of the twins and the scientists who supported his work.”

Perspectives in Biology and Medicine is an interdisciplinary scholarly journal that publishes essays that place important biological or medical subjects in broader scientific, social, or humanistic contexts. The journal is edited by Martha Montello of Harvard Medical School, and published quarterly by The Johns Hopkins University Press.  

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