The success of the CRISPR-Cas9 molecular scissors, which notably allow scientists to modify the DNA of human embryos that are ill as well as insects seen as pests, poses some delicate ethical questions. Alain Kaufmann explains.With CRISPR-Cas9, modifying a genome becomes almost child’s play for a geneticist, which opens the door to abuse. Although recent, the tool is already raising multiple concerns. There’s nothing surprising there. ‘When a new technology surfaces, we generally tend to overestimate its potential at the outset and to underestimate it afterwards’, says Alain Kaufmann, director of UNIL’s Science-Society Interface Department. For the sociologist and biologist, these molecular scissors nevertheless represent ‘a certain number of specific challenges’.
Modification of embryos
The principal apprehensions are centred on modifications made to embryos and germ cells (spermatozoa and ova) which would then be transmitted to descendants. They are even more justified since, in 2015, a Chinese team used CRISPR-Cas9 to modify the DNA of human embryos with genetic diseases. This practice is currently outlawed in multiple countries, including Switzerland, but other geneticists are pressing forward, asking to be able to genetically modify embryos for therapeutic purposes.
This eventuality provokes tensions. On one side, there are those ‘for whom, in the background, it raises the question of eugenics’, underscores Alain Kaufmann. On the other side, we can expect to see ‘a social demand coming from patients affected by genetic diseases that are currently incurable and that will cry out for the use of the technique’.
Widespread use of the genetic scalpel raises many other questions. In particular, it makes ‘the traceability of changes made to the genome’ very difficult or even impossible, Alain Kaufmann remarks. This monitoring is important, however, because this is what ‘allows us to implement legal regulations, like that currently applied to GMOs’.
Its simplicity of use also makes this tool ‘accessible to people or laboratories outside of academic institutions’. The sociologist is referring to the ‘numerous spaces that have been developing over the last fifteen years, such as DIY Bio (Do-It-Yourself Biology)’, a network of people who build makeshift laboratories and present themselves as biohackers. These are communities which ‘the public powers are watching closely’.
Like all previously used techniques, CRISPR-Cas9 allows for the modification of human genomes, but also those of animals or vegetables, with other potential by-products resulting, particularly for biodiversity. Two years ago, researchers attempted to render the tiger mosquito sterile using this tool, in order to limit the transmission of the dengue virus. This means that that this technology ‘opens up the possibility of eradicating certain species of insects considered to be pests, which could disrupt the ecosystems structured around them’, assesses Alain Kaufmann.
It could also have an impact on livestock farming. ‘By practising a genetic selection, much faster than the classic selection, it becomes possible to create, for example, animals that are better adapted to intense livestock farming. The question is knowing whether these transformations will take place at the expense of the animal’s well-being.’
A widespread societal debate
Generally speaking, the sociologist explains, ‘this technology presents so many advantages over the others that, if we don’t take the time to analyse and evaluate it, researchers will be tempted to refrain from using other methods, which are more efficient and safer and which will pose fewer problems.’ This is why Alain Kaufmann hopes that, when it comes to CRISPR-Cas9, we enter into ‘a widespread societal debate involving not only researchers and ethicists but also the other players concerned, such as patients’ associations as well as citizens’. Everyone will have the opportunity to debate the ethical and social issues surrounding this new technology.
The molecular scissors that have revolutionised genetics
With a new tool christened CRISPR-Cas9, modifying a genome is within reach for any molecular biology laboratory. This technology, first used five years ago, is generating high hopes for the treatment of genetic diseases. But it has already raised many concerns. Read more.