Tuesday, December 6, 2016

Who am I, and what am I doing here? (Welcome to the blog)

CRISPR-Cas9    Photo credit: McGovern Institute for Brain Research at MIT

What if we had the ability to cure all genetic diseases, or design how our children will look before they are born? What if we could give our crops and livestock stronger resistance against pests and disease or give superhuman abilities to ordinary humans?

I am a bioethicist.

From the comfort of my armchair, I spend a lot of time thinking about the ethics and morality of different practices related to human life and health. As science continues to develop new technologies that feel straight out of science-fiction, there will always be new and interesting ethical questions arising at the same pace. 

I'm interested in thinking about the future; about how technology is changing society and humanity, and about whether these changes may be good or bad. Questions such as the ones italicized above are of particular interest to me, and are also questions that often come up when discussing the genome editing technology CRISPR-Cas9.

Genome editing is not new, but the CRISPR-Cas9 system (developed in 2012) is cheaper, easier to use, and more precise than its predecessors (1)(2). CRISPR has been said to have created a "new era" for molecular biology with incredible potential for editing the genetic code of organisms (3).

With such potential, what new doors will be opened for the future of genome editing? What will CRISPR be used for? Who will be able to use it? What are the health applications or dangers? How will it be regulated? Will it positively or negatively impact society?

Many of these questions have been asked before, so instead of continuing to ask questions from the armchair, I'm looking for new ways to add to or expand the conversation.

I am a bioethicist who wants to open the ethical conversation to those outside of academia and science.

I had never heard of CRISPR until I began studying for my master's in bioethics, and I don't come across discussions of CRISPR often (well. . . ever) in my day-to-day life. Most of my friends and family have still never heard of CRISPR. Part of me is surprised, because if a new era of genome editing is swiftly becoming part of our future, shouldn't we all be talking more about it? But when I consider how the CRISPR news that does manage to make it onto my Facebook news feed isn't often intelligible to non-scientists such as myself, maybe I shouldn't be so surprised that everyone isn't talking about it.

When I tried to learn more about what CRISPR was and how it worked, I was immediately alienated by the language of molecular biology. Even Wikipedia, the layman's go-to website for simple and easy explanations, sounded more like a graduate-level class: "Clustered regularly interspaced short pallindromic repeats (CRISPR, pronounced crisper) are segments of prokaryotic DNA containing short repetitions of base sequences" (4).

This then lead to searching "pallindromic," "prokaryotic," and "base sequences," and encountering the same problem of feeling like I was reading a whole other language. It's no one's fault that CRISPR is so hard to understand; it makes sense that to understand a genome editing technology, one must also have a grasp on genomes and their parts. One of my goals is to seek out resources that break these concepts into easier-to-understand pieces for those (like me) without a degree in molecular biology, and perhaps compile my research into my own CRISPR resources. This is because. . .

I am a bioethicist that wants to understand the science behind the technology.

To explore ethical questions about any technology, it is usually very important to understand the science behind it. From vaccines, to cloning, to stem cell research. . .  how accurate will our moral opinions be if we don't have a solid understanding of how the technology works, how it is made, how it is tested, or how it is used?

Imagine thinking about the ethics of performing a clinical trial for a genome modification in human beings using CRISPR. Our ethical judgement about supporting such a test may hinge greatly on facts about how effective and safe CRISPR has been shown to be in past experiments.

Where does CRISPR come from? How does it work? How well does it work? What does it do to the genome? What are the risks? The answers to these questions have the power to shift how we make ethical judgments about CRISPR's use, which makes knowing the science an important part of bioethics.

I am also a bioethicist that wants experience working closely with the technology I'm writing about.

Seeing or hearing about what it is like to use any technology from those who experience it first-hand can also be an important part of exploring a technology's ethics. Women acting as surrogates will have unique perspectives about whether carrying and delivering another person's child could be inherently exploitative, and doctors who have experience working with dying patients may have insightful input on how the ethics of assisted suicide can be complicated by hospital policies.

What have these "insiders" seen or witnessed that "outsiders" have not? What do insiders know about the context or setting in which they work? How do they feel about the impact and consequences of their work? This first-hand experience or insider knowledge can provide information or perspectives highly relevant for a full analysis of the ethical question.

Those with "first-hand" experience of working with CRISPR range from distinguished scientists working in labs around the world to amateur "biohackers" experimenting with CRISPR in garages and basements. (And with CRISPR kits and DIY classes available, I could potentially get my own first-hand experience.) I hope to discover as many perspectives as I can, and time will tell what I am able to research and put in writing.

Who am I, and what am I doing here?

I am a bioethicist, and I'm here to learn more about the science of CRISPR, learn more from those who work with CRISPR, and leave my armchair to explore the ethics of CRISPR as it is being used in the real world. I'll be sharing the things I know, researching the things I don't, and writing about my discoveries in straightforward terms to (hopefully) encourage people outside of science and academia to join the ethical conversation and become more interested in learning about CRISPR.

Welcome to the blog. . .

Have anything to add? Additional sources, helpful and relevant resources, and professional insights are welcome! Share in the comments below.


(1) Ledford, H. (2015). CRISPR, the Disrupter. Nature, 522(7554). [Online]. [Accessed December 02, 2016]. Available at: http://www.nature.com/news/crispr-the-disruptor-1.17673.

(2) Nuffield Council on Bioethics. (2016). Genome Editing: An Ethical Review. Nuffield Council on Bioethics: London. Available at: http://nuffieldbioethics.org/project/genome-editing/ethical-review-published-september-2016/.

(3) Reis, A., Hornblower, B., Robb, B., and Tzertziniz, G. (2014). CRISPR/Cas9 and Targeted Genome Editing: A New Era in Molecular Biology. New England BioLabs Inc. [Online]. [Accessed December 01, 2016]. Available at: https://www.neb.com/tools-and-resources/feature-articles/crispr-cas9-and-targeted-genome-editing-a-new-era-in-molecular-biology.

(4) Wikipedia. (n.d.). CRISPR. [Online]. [Accessed Dec 01, 2016]. Available at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/CRISPR

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