The battle for CRISPR – A technological revolution between the desire for scientific insight and capitalist utilization logics
Copyright battles for scientific discoveries are by no means occurrences of modern times. The most well-known dispute on intellectual ownership of a scientific finding took place more than 300 years ago: Newton’s struggle against Leibniz about the invention of calculus. But while the Newton-Leibniz priority dispute was about fame and glory and was fought with words (and personal insults), today’s battles for ownership of scientific discoveries are about billions of dollars and are being fought with lawyers and litigations.
The latest example of such a dispute deals with the new genetic engineering method „CRISPR“. What to most people sounds as harmless as a cereal bar is for biologists and doctors the most important scientific breakthrough of this century with a tremendous revolutionary potential for applications in medicine and human genetics. „CRISPR“ stands for „clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats“ and describes certain sections of repetitive DNA fragments in the genome of bacteria. When infected with phages (viruses), it is possible for them to integrate parts of the foreign viral DNA into their own DNA (to be more precise, in between those CRISPR regions, as so called “spacer” sequences). The integrated DNA part then functions as sort of a detection photo. As soon as viruses with this DNA attack the bacterium again, the bacterial cells recognize the exogenous DNA and can build up the necessary protection immediately. Hence, the bacterial cells become immune to the respective virus. For this purpose, the enzyme „Cas9“ is added to the CRISPR-DNA (numerous other similar mechanisms with other enzymes also exist). The composite complex of both is now of particular interest to genetic engineers, as it functions like a lego stone finder and scissors at the same time: the genetic engineers equip the CRISPR/Cas9 enzyme complex with a sequence exactly complementary to the desired DNA target sequence. This total complex then finds the desired target sequence in the DNA and cuts it precisely there. This way any new gene sequence can be inserted or any existing one can be removed.
This gives the new technology an incredible potency. Whether in plant, animal or human cells, using this new technique, biologists can replace, alter or remove any sequence of genes quickly, precisely and very cheaply. What used to take weeks, months, or even years and was subject to many errors can now be achieved with very high accuracy in days or even hours with CRISPR. For some medical applications the technique is already so widely developed that clinical studies are likely to be possible within just a few years. Doctors are already dreaming of being able to treat many hereditary diseases with CRISPR, as well as human plagues such as AIDS, malaria, diabetes, cancer, as well as many age-related diseases. And naturally the question arises: Can we ultimately genetically alter human characteristics such as beauty and intelligence with CRISPR? In fact, mice can already be made more intelligent by genetic engineering. How long will it take for this to be possible for humans? And will we eventually be able to synthetically construct complete genomes and thus create entirely new forms of life – and finally humans – with completely new properties? With CRISPR/Cas9 such scenarios have become much more realistic today than what even the greatest optimists among gene technologists thought possible just a few years ago. Hence, the scientists are no longer speculating whether the first CRISPR-baby will come, but rather about where it will be born (and according to a survey of the science magazine „Nature“ considering respective legal situation the answer is: in Japan, China, India or Argentina).
No less significant opportunities arise with CRISPR in the field of plant breeding. Unlike previous methods of genetic engineering such as the creation of transgenic plants, CRISPR/Cas9 allows organisms to be modified such that these can hardly be distinguished from natural mutations. They are only subject to individual selective and specific genetic changes which can potentially (albeit with much lower probability) arise in nature as well. Biologists could for example implant specific resistances against fungi and other pathogens into the genome of particularly profitable rice or wheat varieties that would then differ only in that particular characteristic, respectively gene, from the original breed. This form of genetic engineering might be more acceptable to consumers, as its interventions would be much more precise and controlled and could in principle correspond to a natural sort. Especially in poor countries CRISPR promises to create significantly higher yield for crops. Some European countries such as Sweden have already approved first field trials with CRISPR-modified plants, specifically noting that these do not fundamentally differ from those created by conventional breeding or natural mutations. Potentially CRISPR gen-edited plants may no longer be considered “genetically modified” and would thus not need to be regulated accordingly, some biologists and farmers state already.
With all this potential, CRISPR requires a technological infrastructure and know-how that could soon be available to every average laboratory, and potentially even to high school classes. For example, the Internet platform „Indiegogo“ sells „do-it-yourself“ gene editing kits starting from 75 US dollars, with which every home can perform genome editing on bacteria or yeast cells. For no less than 130 US dollars buyers can purchase a CRISPR set including detailed instructions.
Despite (or maybe precisely because of) its enormous technological potential as well as its immediate technological feasibility, this method raises some very critical questions, though. The main concern of bio-ethicists is that with CRISPR it will be significantly easier to introduce new modified DNA into the germ line of living beings and thus to permanently change their properties. For years, researchers in life science have striven to achieve specific changes in entire populations of living organisms through targeted genetic manipulation of their hereditary properties, e.g. in order to modify wild populations of harmful organisms towards being less dangerous. The underlying method is referred to as „gen-drive“. Through corresponding genetic mutations gen-drive has in a limited way also been occurring in natural evolution. However, CRISPR/Cas9 now provides bio-technologists with new, almost limitless possibilities to steer this process. In free populations (advantageous) mutations, whether they occurred coincidentally or were created by purpose, normally spread only over the course of many generations, as according to Mendel’s law they are inherited only to half the descendants. But with the CRISPR technology the biologists have succeeded in developing a way to simply copy a genetic modification on one parental chromosome string to the other chromosome string in the diploid cell. It is thus possible to raise the number of the hereditary transmission of altered genes from 50% to 100%. Within a very short period of time, the desired genetic change can thus be achieved in an entire population.
The CRISPR technique appears like a genie, which promises to fulfill biologists all their wishes. However, a technology that has the potential to alter and eradicate entire species, even if these are initially pathogens, raises ethical and regulatory issues that scientific and government agencies are only beginning to understand. Can we really want parents to decide on the detailed characteristics of their offspring? What would it be like if genetically engineered humans were significantly superior in their cognitive or physical abilities to those who received their gene mix according to the millions of years old „random“ procedure? In the West, such possibilities are still facingsignificant legal hurdles, and there are generally great concerns about such forms of eugenics. Unlike in China, where eugenic efforts are embraced with much more open arms.
At the same time the CRISPR technology is moving so rapidly that the reaction by political decision makers – also in view of their anyways underdeveloped awareness of scientific matters and developments – will likely be way too slow to cork the bottle before the genie escapes. Already 75 years ago it took less than seven years from the scientific discovery of the possibility to split the uranium atom’s nucleus to nuclear mushroom clouds appearing over Hiroshima and Nagasaki. This is what made the Swiss writer Friedrich Dürrenmatt write in his well-known play from 1961 The Physicists: „The content of physics concerns the physicists, its effects all human beings.“ Today Dürrenmatt would probably call his play The Biologists.
Instead of military interests during the times of WWII and the Cold War today commercial motives dominate the discussion on technological developments. The prospect of earning billions of dollars with new technologies makes the task of controlling genies like CRISPR even more difficult. It is thus hardly surprising that the CRISPR/Cas9 technology has already become the subject of a fierce patent dispute behind which lies the economic interests of individual companies and institutions. The CRISPR patents could be worth billions of US dollars. Such sums almost inevitably constitute a constrained framework in which scientists believe they can no longer decide any differently than to develop their technologies without further considerations. The capitalist utilization logics, which often operates on a rather short term basis and ignores externalized costs, is today a powerful force counteracting differentiation and ethical reflection on the development and use of new technologies. But in their essence questions like how to deal with the potential of CRISPR appropriately deal with much more than a few billion dollars of profit for a few companies: They concern nothing less than the very survival of human civilization as we know it. The possibilities technologies such as CRISPR entail put at last every individual person, each of us, in question. How we deal with them determines the future of our individual dignity and freedom and thus humanity itself.
That the necessary discourse is possible among scientists shows the appeal by a group of leading biologists to the public in the spring of 2015 demanding a containment of the CRISPR methodology. This appeal has a prominent historical precedent: the conference of Asilomar, organized by bio-scientists in 1975. It was the first conference on the risks of the then still young gene technology and its technique of DNA recombination. Asilomar already dealt concretely with possible frameworks and rules for the production and handling of genetically modified organisms. The safety guidelines adopted by the scientists back then became the basis for legal regulations in many countries today.
The patent dispute surrounding CRISPR takes place in the American and European patent courts and is solely concerned with the commercial interests of the opposing parties. The ethical evaluation and political consideration of this new technology, however, must go far beyond representing the commercial interests of individuals. It requires no patent courts, but the democratic commitment of each one of us.