CRISPRcon Explores the Future of Gene Editing

By Michael Fernandez, Senior Fellow, GW Sustainability Collaborative

On August 16-17, at the University of California at Berkeley, more than 300 people gathered to explore science, society and the future of gene editing at the first CRISPRcon.  Scientist, business people, farmers, regulators, conservationists and interested citizens came together to discuss their greatest hopes and fears associated with the most well-known gene editing tool, CRISPR-Cas9. Derived from a kind of bacterial “immune system,” scientists have adapted this tool to allow for precise changes at specific locations in human, plant and animal genomes (from more information on CRISPR-Cas9, how it works and how scientists may apply it, read here). 

gene editing

Senior Fellow Michael Fernandez moderating a CRISPRcon panel discussion on social acceptability of gene editing in food and agriculture. Photo by: Peg Skorpinski

The conference was opened by Berkeley professor and co-discoverer of CRISPR, Jennifer Doudna, who noted “I’ve never seen science move at the pace it’s moving right now, which means we can’t put off these conversations.”

Unlike most gene editing conferences, this one did not focus primarily on the science itself, but rather on the thorny and sometimes uncomfortable social issues.  And also unlike most conferences, it touched on a wide spectrum of CRISPR applications, from medicine, to food, to conservation.  The idea was that by exploring issues across multiple applications common themes would emerge and that insights from one area would inform discussions in the others.

Some common themes did emerge.  

Excitement about the possibilities.  First, and perhaps least surprising, was excitement about the promise that gene editing offers.  As CRISPR was named Science magazine’s Breakthrough of the Year in 2015, it came as no surprise that numerous panelists spoke about how the ability to selectively alter genomes in ways that have never been possible before could transform everything from the way we treat diseases to reviving endangered species.  Excitement about the possibilities didn’t just come from scientists developing new applications, though, but from a variety of participants anticipating the benefits CRIPSR has to offer.  These included patient advocates eager for new therapies for intractable genetic diseases like sickle cell anemia, and animal welfare advocates looking for applications, such as gene edited hornless cattle, that could reduce animal suffering associated with conventional animal husbandry practices.

Concerns about moving too fast.  The power of gene editing to transform fields from medicine to agriculture also raised concerns about whether the technology is moving too fast, and whether our institutions are fully prepared to govern its use.  Following reports in late July of the first successful experiments in the US to edit human embryos, ethical concerns about so-called ‘germline’ editing, where genetic changes made in embryos can be passed on to future generations, were widely shared.  The blurring of lines between disease eradication and genetic enhancement raised the specter of ‘designer babies’ and significant questions about how we make these decisions.  As Marcy Darnovsky, Executive Director of the Center for Genetics and Society pointed out, “This (human genome editing) is a door that is hard to open just a crack – it’s not a slippery slope, it’s jumping off a cliff.”

Inclusion/social justice.  Discussions related to inclusion and social justice were also common across all areas.  Questions about who gets to decide, who benefits, and who may be left behind were grappled with during multiple panel discussions.  Ensuring that diverse voices are part of the conversation early and that communities most affected are carefully listened to were common refrains.  As Pastor Michael McBride of the PICO National Network said, “When we’re talking about diseases that disproportionally effect minority people we need to bring those people into the conversation up front.”  Maori researcher Aroha Te Pareake Mead raised similar points about the need to involve local peoples when contemplating habitat-level interventions so that the “people most impacted are an intrinsic part of the entire process.”

And Rosemarie Garland-Thomson, Emory University professor and a widely recognized pioneer in the field of disability studies, raised questions about how we define “normal” in the context of genetic diseases.  She argued for a clear public deliberation, including a very wide set of perspectives, before we make decisions about “what kind of human variations we want to eliminate,” and cautioned that we shouldn’t undervalue the “diversity of ways of being in the world.”  

As Claudia Emerson, Director of the Program on Ethics & Policy for Innovation at McMaster University put it, “The technology is new, but the moral questions are not.”  Pastor Mike echoed that theme, calling for a “radical ethic” to keep pace with the “radical imagination” that is driving the technology.

Social acceptability.  While the panel discussion on gene editing in food and agriculture explicitly focused on social acceptability, particularly in the wake of public controversy about GMOs in food, questions about how the technology will be received by the general public were woven throughout the event.   Tom Titus, an Iowa pork producer, talked about how the first conversations about GMOs were really business to business (i.e., technology providers to farmers) and that consumers were largely left out.  He argued that farmers need to be more active in talking about the benefits that gene editing can bring and that social media platforms provide new opportunities for farmers to reach consumers directly.

Randal Giroux, Vice President at Cargill, made a similar argument and highlighted three pillars that he sees as critical to consumer acceptance: (1) Assurance of safety, (2) providing transparency and consumer choice, and (3) regulatory consistency and coherence.  In the end, he argued that true success will come when consumers are pulling the technology to the market, not companies pushing it onto the market.

Organic farmer Tom Willey made a similar point, albeit from a different perspective.  He argued that the first generation of GMOs never gained much traction with consumers because they didn’t move agriculture in a more sustainable direction and didn’t improve the quality of foods that consumers actually eat.  Rather than simply being a “convenience item for farmers….and a profit center for corporations,” the next generation of genetically engineered foods will need to provide direct benefits for consumers.

In the end, though, Ted Nordhaus of the Breakthrough Institute argued that the debate about GMOs is really a proxy for a larger debate about farming and food more generally, and that until we shift the nature of that conversation new gene editing technology won’t meaningfully alter that debate.

Perhaps Greg Simon, Director of the Biden Cancer Initiative and longtime veteran of the biotechnology policy debates, said it best in his keynote address on Setting Limits in a Limitless Future:  “CRISPR is not a light on the nation, it’s a mirror.”  And that, in the end, was really the overriding mission of CRISPRCon, to create a forum in which those with a stake in CRISPR could share their ideas, ask and answer questions, and make sure that their diverse perspectives were heard.

For more information about CRISPRcon and to access video recordings of panel sessions you can go to the CRISPRcon website.