It has only been a few short years since the advent of CRISPR, and one instance of ethical impropriety (the one that we know of, and-Wow!-what a doozie) in the usage of this strangely simplified process for carrying out gene editing has already occurred. There will be more. Perhaps many more.
Such overstepping is the whisper that comes along with the usage of this technology. It’s too tempting for some. Some of us cannot resist the temptation to trespass where we dare not tread. But with a new technology that is cheap to manufacture, small enough to ship without much fuss, and apparently easy enough to learn, how do we legislate our way out of the desires, the yearnings to explore, the inevitability to answer questions we never should have asked? We won’t.
This particular researcher only revealed his actions after the deed was already done, and apparently only because it was leaked before he could mount his justifications for changing the human germline in a way that simply goes beyond logical explanation. Well intentioned or not, you can’t undo that. What’s done is done. Those children are altered irrevocably. Some experts have stated that they will possibly suffer in unexpected ways as a result of this one individual’s tinkering. I would have to agree.
We, as a species, will go about addressing the possibility of other such scary prospects in the manner we always do, with big organizations full of big brains documenting all kinds of rules and regulations designed to prevent labs around the world from engaging in risky business such as this researcher undertook, doing his work in plain sight at the university that employed him.
It should work…mostly. Most people don’t want to break rules on purpose and will go out of their way to stay within the bounds of the law. But then there are those scientists, those laboratories in countries around the world, who will skim up close to the edge, feeling the excitement of daring to do something taboo. Will somebody step over the line in a big time way within the next 3-5 years? I’d put money on it.
I equate such daredevilish behavior to the driving habits of those among us on any given highway on any given day, essentially flaunting, not only the law, but good judgment, as well. All the laws on the books don’t stop them from driving like idiots, as though they were the only one on the road who counted, and everyone else being placed in danger as a result is not their problem.
So we’ll listen to that whisper in the CRISPR, so full of promise, so bursting with risk. How will the future play out? We won’t know until we get there, and we can only hope Pandora hasn’t peeked inside her box.