CRISPR: A Tool for the Rich?
Image Source: Flickr
By: Emma Joseph
When the sci-fi movie Gattaca first came out in 1997, many were shocked by the dystopian world it presented, a world where every aspect of one’s life was determined by their genetic code. Now, more than twenty years later, the advancements presented by Gattaca no longer seem like the musings of a distant future, but instead are very real possibility, given the speed at which we are making new genetic discoveries. As this research progresses, a new question arises along with it: how much is it going to cost? If gene therapy technologies become available to the public without any monetary regulations in place, then these technologies will dramatically widen the already existing wealth gap, since those who have money will be able to afford modifications, and those without money will be pushed to the side.
Gene therapy is one of the most quickly evolving technologies right now. What started fifty years ago as a way to help couples with fertility issues conceive through in vitro fertilization (IVF) has advanced to actual manipulation of genetic material of embryos before they even begin developing. For example, it is now possible to change an embryo’s mitochondrial DNA to avoid certain genetic diseases and even delete heart conditions from embryos and create transplant organs. CRISPR-Cas9 technology (better known as simply CRISPR) is just one of these tools for gene editing that is becoming more popular because it is relatively cheaper and easier to use. It works by locating certain sequences on target DNA and using the Cas9 enzyme to either shut down or manipulate them. For example, CRISPR has been used to remove a heart-disease causing gene from an embryo.
The economic issues will become especially pressing once CRISPR advances to a technology that can do more than just prevent heritable diseases, even potentially allowing parents to pick and choose specific traits they want their child to have. Already, certain genes that affect intelligence have been isolated, and it is predicted that within five years, couples using IVF will be able select embryos with genes that are more optimal for intelligence. Theoretically, the potential intelligence, athleticism, and even conventional attractiveness of the child could have a direct correlation with how much their parents were willing to pay. These children will then grow up with more privilege and ability that will allow them to go farther in life, increasing the divide even more.
The way to prevent this from happening is make sure that a regulatory body is set up, whether that be by the government or some other medical board, that will be able to make sure that the costs of gene therapy are not directly related to the quality of the therapy received. Currently, the Recombinant DNA Advisory Committee has oversight over different experiments, but they are usually limited to those that are federally funded. There are also the general federal guidelines regarding human subjects. However, neither of these deal with how the applications of the sciences are going to be distributed to the public. The regulatory body that is found would ideally be an international body, as this is an issue that will have global consequences. Another benefit to having an international body is that, since different nations are at different stages of development of gene therapy, it would help to counteract any biases one country might have and prevent the more technologically advanced nations from gaining an unfair advantage. If not, then the gap created by CRISPR could span more than just income brackets, it could span nations.
Some may say that it is completely unlikely that we will reach this point in science, that such specific, and even shallow gene editing will remain the work of fiction, either due to our own technological incapability or the progress being halted by our own fear and disgust. But to believe that is to underestimate just how quickly gene therapy is advancing—in many ways, it is already able to do all of these things; this isn’t question of ability, it is a question of time. As controversial as these technologies are, we need to create them and improve them in order to advance our other technologies. And they will be created, and we will have to be prepared.
The wealth gap is visible in many ways, from the cars we drive to the clothes we wear, people love to let the world know how much money they have. But human beings are not material objects, and they should be protected from the same divide. The only way to do this is to be conscious of the giant leaps technology takes, and to make sure they don’t land on the heads of the poor.