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Technology Networks Explores the CRISPR Revolution: An Interview With Professor Glenn Cohen, World-leading Expert on Bioethics

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Professor Glenn Cohen is a Professor of Law at Harvard Law School. He is also the director of Harvard Law School's Petrie-Flom Center for Health Law Policy, Biotechnology, and Bioethics, and one of the world's leading experts on the intersections of bioethics and the law. Cohen's current projects relate to big data, health information technologies, reproduction/ reproductive technology, research ethics, organ rationing in law and medicine, health policy, FDA law, translation medicine, and medical tourism. The utilization of CRISPR technology as a gene editing tool has spurred significant debate across the globe. In this interview, we gain insight of Cohen's perspectives on the "CRISPR revolution" and learn about the basic ethical issues surrounding the manipulation of the genome for enhancement.

Molly Campbell (MC): You are one of the leading experts on the intersection of bioethics and the law. Please can you tell us more about this field and the types of cases it addresses?

Glenn Cohen (GC):
Wherever law, medicine, and ethics intersect, that’s where the field and I are. Whether it is the ethics of research, reproductive technologies, genetics, end of life decision-making, mental health, neuroscience, rationing, AI, clinical practice, etc. It is a robust and very exciting field.

MC: Currently, what restrictions apply to the use of CRISPR technology in different cell types and organisms? What applications are scientists not allowed to use CRISPR or other gene-editing technologies for?

GC: In lay terms, in the United States an appropriations rider prohibits FDA from considering the use of germline gene editing in human beings. Thus, it is not possible to do a clinical trial or the like of this. Many (perhaps all, it is not clear everywhere) other countries across the world also prohibit in one way or another, but not all regulatory regimes may be as effective.

MC: The work of Jiankui He arguably startled the scientific community. In your opinion, do you think the publication of He's work prompted authorities to address regulating CRISPR technology? Or was there already a conversation taking place?

There was very robust conversation long before Dr. He’s terrible (and in my view completely unethical) experiments. For example, this report from the National Academies. While CRISPR is relatively new in terms of technology, in fact bioethicists have been talking about the basic issues surrounding manipulating the genome for enhancement for at least 40 years if not longer.

MC: There are concerns that the CRISPR tool could be used for enhancement purposes. In recent opinion article you say, "Anyone who has a position on enhancement has not thought deeply enough on the question." Please can you expand on what you mean by this?

My claim is that “enhancement” is not a single monolithic thing, so it is hard to have a single position on it. Some enhancements would be wonderful and perhaps the state should subsidize them. Others would be terrible and perhaps the state should prohibit. Only when we think about it with some specificity can we know what we think the answer should be. In the article you mention I draw the following distinctions, for example, though others are possible:

Biological vs. Non-Biological Enhancement

a.     Genetic enhancements vs. non-genetic biological enhancements

Choosing for Ourselves vs. Choosing for Others Who Cannot Choose for Themselves

Enhancing after birth vs. enhancing before birth

Enhancing by selection vs. enhancing by manipulation of already fertilized embryos or implanted fetuses

3.     Enhancements Compatible with Expanding Life Plans vs. Enhancements That Will Limit Options

4.     Reversible vs. Irreversible Enhancement

5.     Some would distinguish “enhancement” from “treatment” (though others are skeptical about this distinction)

Enhancements to the upper bounds of what people already have vs. enhancements that add beyond human nature as it now stands

6.     Enhancements for Absolute vs. Positional Goods

MC: A novel community of gene-editing "biohackers" has emerged in the rise of CRISPR technology. What are your opinions of biohackers conducting gene-editing experiments from their homes, from a legal and ethical perspective?

GC: I think the community is very interesting. I am a huge fan of open science and the building of intellectual communities. I think the key question is whether/when the work undertaken by this community could pose significant externalities for others. That’s probably where I would start to get concerned.

MC: How do we approach implementing a global legal and ethical framework for using gene-editing technologies? What progress has been made thus far?

The WHO has chartered an advisory committee which has recommended a registry of all those doing gene editing work and has advised that “it is irresponsible at this time for anyone to proceed with clinical applications of human germline genome editing." I think the existence of this committee (alongside the NASEM, Nuffield Council) and others working on these issues is a great step. 

My own view is that we ought to be looking for a responsible translational pathway that might allow some clinical work to be reviewed and approved by regulators like the FDA in the future, but certainly there is nothing there yet. The international aspect makes this very, very difficult. Some have suggested we ought to go for an international treaty, like what we have on landmines and chemical weapons but also recognition of adoption, while others think this is infeasible.

MC: What challenges exist when looking to create laws surrounding a novel scientific technology?

There are quite a few. The first is uncertainty – whenever you move to first-in-humans, whatever pre-clinical work you have done, there is always open questions. The same was true with IVF. The second is the politicization of science and the reduction of difficult and nuanced questions to “talking points.” The third is deep philosophical disagreement on some key points (for example, some take quite literally the idea of "man created in God’s image" and view altering the human genome as a rejection of that. If that’s what someone believes for religious reasons then it is very hard to talk about these issues at a more policy level). Fourth, is the importance but difficult of public engagement. The UK in its public consultation on mitochondrial replacement therapy (that ultimately paved the way for permitting that technology to be used in a limited way) was a very good recent model, but quite difficult and expensive. Moreover, some felt it didn’t go far enough in the direction of deliberative democracy. The hope is we will see more such initiatives for gene editing and other novel technologies.

Professor Glenn Cohen, Haravard Law School, was speaking with Molly Campbell, Science Writer, Technology Networks.

Catch up on the previous instalment of Technolology Networks Explores the CRISPR Revolution, an interview with Professor George Church, here