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The good, the bad and the truly horrifying potential of CRISPR technology

The good, the bad and the truly horrifying potential of CRISPR technology
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Gene-editing using the groundbreaking CRISPR technology is about to be put to the test in the first-ever clinical trial of the treatment in humans. CRISPR is a protein in bacteria that can be used to manipulate genetic material to, according to Jennifer Doudna, who won last year’s Nobel Prize in Chemistry for the development of CRISPR technology, “alter[] DNA sequences in any cell in a precise fashion, in a programmable fashion.” This remarkable technology has the potential to eliminate all genetic disorders and is already delivering results that scientists say were unimaginable just a few years ago.

As is observed in the Netflix documentary series “Unnatural Selection,” we are now “doing science fiction science,” and have been thrust more quickly than we expected into a new world in which our genetic blueprints can be tweaked and optimized. Many bioethicists see such interventions as a potentially dangerous affront to the natural order, opening a Pandora’s Box of potentially disastrous outcomes we can’t begin to predict. 

Yet, it is not at all obvious what the term “natural” means or ought to mean, particularly within the context of a human history defined by technological interventions that necessarily restructure natural reality. We may wonder, for example, whether the domestication of grains was natural, whether the use of vaccines to conquer smallpox and polio was natural, whether turning wolves into dogs tens of thousands of years ago was natural, whether using our knowledge of genetics to safely increase the quality and quantity of our crops was natural, whether the very practice of medicine as we know it today is natural, etc.

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What is clearer is that this technology will be used by some people; now that the genie is out of the bottle, we can be virtually certain that the rich and the powerful will have access to these mechanisms and will leverage them for their own advantage in ways we probably cannot yet imagine. We already know that the United States military is investing heavily in genetic engineering technologies. Doudna recalls a dream in which Adolf Hitler asks her to give him the recipe for CRISPR. 

The debate about the appropriate use of this technology is bound to last for generations; already, in a response to Chinese scientist He Jiankui’s controversial decision to edit the genomes of two human embryos, scientists around the world have called for a worldwide moratorium on the use of this technology in human embryos. Ethical issues also surround the high costs that attend these gene-altering therapies, which can amount to hundreds of thousands of dollars.

A democratic approach to these world-shifting technologies cannot be one that locks them away behind artificial barriers created by partnerships between the state and capital, allowing the pharmaceutical industry (one of the world’s most powerful and profitable industries) to collect rents from a scarcity of their own creation. Here, the champions of the free market and the socialist opponents of Big Business can agree. The libertarian solution is also the socialist one: There should be no patents on any treatment that could alter human genetic material — ever.

This knowledge must live permanently in the public domain, or we risk a world in which the powerful sort other people into classes at least partially defined by genetic attributes, a world very much like the one Aldous Huxley famously created in “Brave New World.” This is not at all to argue that pharmaceutical companies should not be allowed to market, sell and profit from gene-editing therapies, only that they should not be able to establish any kind of exclusive ownership or control of the scientific knowledge itself.

Should we miss the chance to establish this norm now, at the dawn of this new era, we will be faced with a reality we’re already beginning to see, whereby pharmaceutical companies hold life-saving and life-changing treatments for ransom. The scientific facts that lie underneath such treatments belong to humankind — perhaps more accurately, they belong to no one. They are aspects of nature that are not ownable and not properly patentable. The pharmaceutical giants must not be permitted to monopolize the benefits of this astounding scientific breakthrough, which, for better or worse, will change the course of human history forever.

David S. D'Amato is an attorney, a columnist at the Cato Institute's Libertarianism.org and a policy adviser at both the Future of Freedom Foundation and the Heartland Institute.