Photo Credit: NHGRI
By Bennett Batten
In November 2018 the scientific community was stunned when the guest speaker to the second International Summit on Human Genome Editing, He Jiankui, decided to share a fun surprise. He had successfully edited the embryonic DNA of twin girls! He deactivated a gene called CCR5 with the goal of decreasing the risk of acquiring HIV. In reaction to this event an international body of scientists called for a temporary global moratorium on heritable genome editing, and the World Health Organization (WHO) formed an advisory committee on “Developing Global Standards for Governance and Oversight of Human Genome Editing”. While both of those developments are positive, they do not fix the problem that was highlighted.
Advancements in genetic engineering have far surpassed our global institutions’ ability to regulate them. With the development of genetic engineering tools such as CRISPR and gene drives, paired with the growing popularity of DIY labs, access to bioweapon creation or human enhancement has become open to the public.
Back in 2014 a scientist at Vanderbilt University stated that experiments that previously required 18 months and $20,000 now only take 3 weeks and $3,000. It’s been 6 years since that statement, so it’s safe to assume that prices have fallen farther. Entrepreneurs have met these falling prices with DIY biohacker labs. The first of their kind opened in 2010. By 2017 there were more than 50 in the USA alone. Lack of regulation and security at these private biolabs have concerned the FDA and FBI, but no cohesive protocol has been put in place by the federal government to address safety and ethical concerns.
A vulnerability from open access genetic engineering is an inability to contain negative side effects. Most genes affect and are affected by others. When Jiankui “deleted” the gene CCR5 in the twin girls, he knowingly increased their likelihood of health complications from viral infections and improved their cognitive abilities. The study of how genes interact with one another is complex and incomplete. How these side effects will manifest in the twins is unknown. If a germline genetic alteration is made unbeknownst to governments or academia, a containment crisis to the alteration could occur.
Unlike the threat of nuclearization, creating a bioweapon doesn’t have its own version of a radiation footprint. Even with detectable signs of nuclearization, misguided wars of suspicion have destabilized parts of the globe. “Gene editing could allow scientists to develop biological weapons capable of discriminating among target populations based on ethnic, racial, or other genetically defined characteristics.” Having the capacity to carry out genocide by use of bioweapns is a threat of equal concern to having nuclear capabilities. Since the creation process of bioweapons has no obvious tells built in, paranoia on the weapons capacity of enemy groups could rise.
So, what tools do we have to prevent illegal bioengineering? The Bioweapons Convention (BWC) of 1975 resulted in the multilateral disarmament of treaty member states. Members agreed to ban the development, production, and stockpiling of these weapons. Currently the BWC holds a review conference every five years, and one annual week-long meeting of government experts. The annual meeting is intended to track progress and raise issues. Attendee, Malcolm Dando, and Professor of international security at the University of Bradford, UK raised concerns that the goal of these meetings are not being accomplished. “In 2013, for example the experts’ meeting scheduled a mere six hours of discussions on science and technology — less than a day. That is not enough time for complex science to be presented, digested and discussed, and not enough to consider its implications and suggest revisions to the BWC.”
The World Health Organization committee on Developing Global Standards for Governance and Oversight of Human Genome Editing has been actively responding to the problem. In March, 2019 they called for a temporary ban on clinical application of human germline genome editing (heritable changes to genes), while developing a mandatory registry for all planned and ongoing research relevant to gene editing.
The main objectives of any new policy need to ensure global security by preventing unregistered experiments from contaminating the public gene pool, or privately used for human enhancement. Another objective is the protection of human rights. No unborn person should be subjected to genetic experimentation without the endorsement of the scientific community, its guardians, and society. This will ensure the safety of the child, and that social morality associated with editing human DNA is not violated.
A focal concern about He Jiankui’s experiment on the twins is how easy it was for him to keep it under wraps. An international registry for all genome editing studies will serve as a deterrent to ambitious scientists, if unregistered studies are prohibited from accessing funding, and barred from publication. This does not deter private moneyed interests that have no desire in publication. Jiaunkui kept his experiment under wraps by lying to, and concealing information from staff, as well as exploiting “… loosely worded and irregularly enforced regulations…” in China. This is exemplary of how one person under current protocol has the ability to shirk regulations and laws by mislabeling actions, and misinforming staff.
To prevent unsanctioned bioengineering, awareness of humanity’s growing ability to control the future of our species’ evolution needs to be raised. From as early as elementary school, we should instill in the coming generations a humble and almost sacred approach to gene editing. Requiring all DIY labs to host a security guard and in-house lab technician to monitor what is being conducted is low hanging fruit, but still impactful.
All the necessary materials to perform genetic experiments is basic lab equipment, and since the Cas9 enzyme (the key tool used in CRISPR) is a protein, controlling distribution is not logical. Currently there is no way to detect at home laboratories. Modifying a centrifuges energy footprint, or frequency discharge into a pattern that identifies itself could provide a way to locate unregistered experiments.
The BWC has been successful so far in its mission of keeping bioweapons from being developed and utilized in warfare. For it to be successful in preventing the weaponization of gene editing, it should quadruple the time it’s experts and delegates meet yearly in order to dedicate adequate time to policy development. How the BWC evolves is up to debate. Two main paths are available: - one that prioritizes state sovereignty and holds that each state is responsible for all bioterrorism threats within its borders, and another that prioritizes the global genetic stability of the species over state sovereignty. However, many states do not have the capacity to fund programs of surveillance and security to prohibit extremist groups from using their territory
Article 39 in The Charter of the United Nations gives The Security Council (UNSC) authority to label threats to international peace, and the duty of deciding what actions to take to restore/protect peace. Any action taken requires approval of all five permanent member states (US, GB, FR, CHN, RU). To facilitate productive policy development that would address ranking the priorities of sovereignty and genetic stability, the BWC should request annual discussions with the five permanent member states of the UNSC.
It is the duty of our global institutions to be predictive of future threats to international peace. To minimize the occurrence of genetic crisis events, effective deterrents must be developed. It is time now to raise cultural awareness of this issue and to pressure our global institutions to take action.