Public input into gene-editing decisions

Lyme disease is caused by a type of bacteria that lives in mice, which are considered a “reservoir” for the disease-causing agent.  Ticks bite the mice, pick up the bacteria, and then infect people when they bite them.  (Ticks are called the “vector” for the disease.)

If mice were immune to the bacteria, their immune systems would destroy them, and there’s be no reservoir, and no Lyme disease.  If scientists genetically engineered mice to make them immune—for example, by editing their genes—they could make progress toward that goal.  But to work, the mouse population would have to be predominantly made of bacteria-immune mice.  That could be accomplished by using “gene drive,” an approach that would make the altered gene spread preferentially and rapidly in the population.  However, doing that could alter the environment in unpredictable ways.

Because of the risks, scientists on the “Mice Against Ticks” project are determined that even if they succeed in genetically altering mice as suggested, they will not release those mice into the wild without full public awareness and approval.  They are holding public meetings—specifically, in Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket—well in advance of the project coming to full fruition.  And they are trying to figure out, with the public, what level of communication and acceptance constitutes public approval.

Similarly, scientists in New Zealand would like to use a form of gene drive to greatly reduce the population of rats, possums, and other destructive predators that are decimating the environment.  And their public deliberations include seeking advice and, before taking action, buy-in from a network of Maori leaders.  Those conversations are so sensitive that the Maori objected when the scientists published a “what-if” type of article discussing the issues raised by the technology.  Among the concerns: some readers got the impression that gene editing of the animals was imminent, not hypothetical, as it still is.  Some of the news coverage of the Nuffield Council’s recent deliberations about the potential acceptability of heritable human gene editing seemed, likewise, to create the impression that the birth of the first gene-edited human is upon us—which it is not, not quite yet.

The public discussions above are two commendable moves toward true public involvement in decision-making about gene editing.  They were described in a recent Wall Street Journal article.  If you have subscription access, by all means read it.

Britain’s experts on gene-edited babies

by Jon Holmlund

Some of the cable news shows ran segments on the report released this week by Britain’s Nuffield Council on Bioethics, “Genome editing and human reproduction: social and ethical issues.”  Full disclosure: I have not yet read the full report, only the short summaries (all of which are available for free download at the link here).

The TV teasers—”U.K. bioethics council says that gene-editing children may be morally acceptable” were accurate.  The key conclusion is that “the use of heritable genome editing interventions to influence the characteristics of future generations could be ethically acceptable in some circumstances” (emphasis theirs).  But the news folks made it sound like an attempt to birth an edited baby is around the corner, or at least fully green-lighted by Nuffield.

The summary of the report reads more modestly, acknowledging that such attempts are currently banned by law most places, and that making them legal could require “a long and complex legislative pathway.”  But the Council does take the view that at least some attempts, such as those to try to repair a lethal disease gene such as the dominant gene for Huntington’s disease, might be justifiable.  This blog has considered such an argument in the case of sickle cell anemia—single gene defect, well understood, circumscribed attempt to repair only that gene.  An argument can be made.

The Nuffield Council’s summary really is a list of general statements that, taken individually, are hard to take issue with, and are in some cases almost platitudinous.  The overall impression is, “yes, heritable human gene editing could be ethical, and probably should be considered, but only after a long public deliberative process, appropriate regulation, etc., etc.”  Nuffield offers two stipulations for ethically acceptable heritable human gene editing:

  • “Intended to secure, and is consistent with, the welfare of a person who may be born as a consequence” of the effort, and
  • Social justice and solidarity are upheld; that is, discrimination or social division should not be a consequence.

These statements are both too broad to be helpful.  In the first case, the Council acknowledges that some efforts could be attempts to enhance a person’s natural characteristics, not just treat a recognized disease, and that, except for the most genetically straightforward cases, the scientific and technical challenges are substantial.  In the second case, it would seem that pressures for discrimination based on social attitudes or economics (ability to pay for the procedure, medical insurance reimbursement issues) will be unavoidable.

Scientifically and socially, there will be unintended—or at least undesirable—consequences.  These may be known but considered acceptable.  For example, how many human embryos will need to be created and destroyed to perfect the procedure?  How many generations will need to be followed to rule out some late complication?  Can we really guarantee that “having babies the old-fashioned way” won’t become a thing of the past?  And, in spite of the laudable desire to bring healthy children into the world, wouldn’t this be a wholesale acceptance of the basic assumption that only the people we want to be born, should be born?

For these reasons and others previously articulated on this blog, heritable human gene editing falls into a small but critical group of biomedical undertakings that should not be pursued.

And, BTW, the remaining bugs in the system include, as reported this week, that gene-editing techniques appear to introduce errors more frequently than previously appreciated.  Given that heritable human editing involves more than just a few cells in a dish, a “presumption to forebear” should apply.

The TV news gave this about 5 minutes this week.  That’s the breadth and depth of our “public deliberation” beyond a few experts.  At the end of one segment, the host looked into the camera and said, “next up: are liberals or conservatives happier?”

As Neil Postman said:  “now this…”

Forcing RNA to, at least, Mumble…

BY MARK MCQUAIN

We are at a turning point in medicine where instead of supplementing patients with proteins or enzymes that their bodies fail to manufacture due to genetic abnormalities, we soon may be able to re-engineer the abnormal DNA, restoring the DNA’s ability to instruct the body to make those same proteins or enzymes. On our way to full-fledged genetic engineering, we have learned that DNA makes something called RNA, which can be thought of as specific instructions for assembling these vital proteins, telling cells exactly how to assemble protein building blocks, called amino acids, in their proper sequence. Even a very minor disorder in a very long amino acid sequence of a protein can cause that protein to function poorly or not at all. When bad DNA makes bad RNA, or when good RNA gets subsequently damaged or misread, the protein either gets assembled in a garbled fashion, or not at all. Think of RNA as the boss of protein production who can speak clearly, mumble or say nothing at all. Recently, there is one well-known disease where it looks like it is possible to force bad RNA that presently says nothing at all to, at least, mumble.

The disease is Muscular Dystophy (MD) and the missing necessary protein is called dystrophin. Dystrophin is responsible for the structural integrity of muscle. Poorly formed or garbled dystrophin results in a mild form of MD, such as one called Becker Muscular Dystrophy (BMD) where patients can live well into their 40s or 50s. If no dystrophin is produced at all, a severe form of the disease called Duchenne MD (DMD) results, in which muscles simply fall apart over a shorter period of time, causing patients to stop walking in their teens, usually dying in their twenties from cardiac or respiratory muscle failure. While it would be great to restore normal production of dystrophin in patients with DMD, one company called Sarepta, appears to be able to cause patients with DMD, who normally do not make any dystrophin, to produce a garbled dystrophin, giving them a milder BMD-like disease.

Consider the following sentence: “The big red fat cat bit the sly fox and ate the shy jay”. The individual letters represent the RNA sequence and the three letter words represent unique amino acid protein building blocks, resulting in a meaningful protein sentence – think of this as the normal dystrophin protein in a healthy person. If the RNA was missing the 22nd through 24th letters (the 8th word “sly”), the sentence becomes: “The big red fat cat bit the fox and ate the shy jay”. It is a minimally garbled version of the first sentence but still meaningful – think of this as the dysfunctional dystrophin in milder BMD. If the original RNA sequence was missing only the 7th and 8th letters, the sentence becomes: “The big dfa tca tbi tth esl yfo xan dat eth esh yja y”. This sentence has no meaning beyond “The big” – think of this as no dystrophin in severe DMD. If we could get the RNA reader to ignore the first letter “d” in the last RNA sequence, the sentence becomes: “The big fat cat bit the sly fox and ate the shy jay”. We are back to a minimally garbled version of the first sentence but still meaningful – think of this as another dysfunctional protein in a milder “Becker-like” MD. This is how scientists at Sarepta appear to have taken an RNA sequence that originally said nothing and forced it to mumble, producing a new garbled form of dystrophin, which works better than no dystrophin at all.

I realize this has been a long walk in the weeds for some of our regular readers but hopefully it has provided some helpful background into the current treatment of MD and a sense of how much further we have yet to go. I will use this blog entry as background for my next blog entry to discuss some of the bioethics around the cost of getting RNA to mumble.

For now and for me, advancing medical knowledge like this convinces me of how fearfully and wonderfully we are made. (Psalm 139:14)

Raiding the CRISPR

BY JON HOLMLUND

A couple of gene-editing news items from this week’s science literature:

First, Nature reports that a group in my “back yard,” at the University of California San Diego, has tested gene editing using the CRISPR approach in mice.  Recall that CRISPR is an acronym for a particular molecular mechanism, first discovered in bacteria, that is particularly efficient—though not perfectly so!—at editing genes.  The idea is to find a “bad” gene that you’d like to replace, for example to prevent or treat a disease, and edit it to be the normal version of that gene.

The kicker in this particular case in mice is that it tested something called “gene drive.”  In classical genetics, humans (and other higher organisms) have two copies of each gene.  In sexual reproduction each parent passes one copy of the gene to offspring, so the chance of a particular gene being handed down is 50%.

“Gene drive” is a technique designed to change those odds, and make a particular gene “selfish,” and much more likely to be passed on.  In fact, the idea is that transmission would be 100%, or nearly so.  If that worked, then a new gene would soon take over a population of organisms, and every member would, in a few generations, have that gene.

Why might that be a good thing?  Suppose you are interested in pest control, and you could use the technique to make, say, mosquitoes infertile.  Then they would soon all die off.  Or if you had some other “desirable” characteristic, you could make it so all members of a species (rodents?  Cattle?  People?) have that characteristic.  Assuming it’s determined by one gene, that is.

And assuming that the technique works.  In the mouse experiment, efficiency was only 73%.

That’s probably good news.   This is one of those techniques that could have serious unintended consequences if tried in the field.  Scientists have been warning about that.  It looks like it’s a way off, but something else to fret about.

The second item involves a clinical trial to treat sickle cell anemia.  In this one, blood stem cells from a person with the disease are removed from the bloodstream and gene-edited outside the body to make hemoglobin that is not as damaged as in the disease (SCA is an inherited disease in which the red blood cells have abnormal hemoglobin that doesn’t carry oxygen well).  Then the altered cells become the therapy, and are given back to the patient.

The FDA has put a “clinical hold” on this clinical trial.  Exactly why has not been publicly disclosed (it doesn’t have to be), and it sounds like the trial itself hadn’t started yet, but that the company developing it was getting ready to start.  This is, in my view, an approach to gene editing that does not pose special or particularly worrisome ethical issues, because the genetic changes are done on “adult” stem cells to treat an existing individual with a disease in a way that would not entail transmission of altered genes to future generations.

And, probably, it’s a case of “this too shall pass,” and the FDA’s concerns will be answered and the trial will proceed.

But check out the sidebar reporting this in Nature Biotechnology.  If you follow the link you will probably get a prompt asking for payment but I was able to sneak a free read on my screen.  If you go there, read below the separate quote (itself picked up from The New York Times) from Dr. George Church of Harvard:  “Anyone who does synthetic biology [engineering of biological organisms] should be under surveillance, and anyone who does it without a license should be suspect.”  Apparently he said that in response to “the publication of an experiment recreating a virus that has engendered fears that such information could be used to create a bioweapon. ”

The old “dual use problem,” eh?  We should really fret about that.

Labs are growing human embryos for longer than ever before

BY JON HOLMLUND

That’s only a slight paraphrase of a news feature article this week in Nature.  The clearly-written article is devoid of scientific jargon, with helpful illustrations, open-access online, and readily accessible to the non-specialist.  Check it out.

Key points include:

  • Scientists who do not find it ethically unacceptable to create and destroy human embryos solely for research purposes continue to follow the so-called “14-day rule,” by which such experimentation is limited to the first 14 days after fertilization. At that point, the human nervous system starts to form and the time for twinning is past.
  • The 14-day rule is law in some nations, but until now has not been a practical issue because scientists have been unable to grow human embryos that long in the laboratory.
  • That technical limit has been sufficiently overcome that embryos are now surviving for almost 14 days. Scientists have not directly challenged the 14-day rule yet, but might, and would like to revisit it.
  • Experiments on human embryos in that time have included editing of critical genes to see what happens (sometimes they stop growing), and making hybrids of animal embryos with human cells whose purpose is to “organize” embryonic development rather than remain part of the developing individual.
  • Embryo-like structures, referred to as “embryoids” in the article, and sounding similar to “SHEEFs” (“synthetic human entities with embryo-like features”) are also being created. These entities don’t necessarily develop nervous systems in the same way as a natural embryo, prompting questions of just how much they are like natural embryos, whether the 14-day rule applies, and whether they raise other ethical concerns.

The last paragraph of the article, reproduced here with emphases added, is striking and more than a little ironic in light of arguments that embryos are “just a clump of cells”:

As the results of this research accumulate, the technical advances are inspiring a mixture of fascination and unease among scientists. Both are valuable reactions, says [Josephine] Johnston [bioethicist from the Hastings Center]. “That feeling of wonder and awe reminds us that this is the earliest version of human beings and that’s why so many people have moral misgivings,” she says. “It reminds us that this is not just a couple of cells in a dish.”

A safety concern with gene editing

BY JON HOLMLUND

Hat-tip to Dr. Joe Kelley for bring this to my attention…

As readers of this blog will recall, there is keen interest in exploiting recent discoveries in genetic engineering to “edit” disease-causing gene mutations and develop treatments for various diseases.  Initially, such treatments would likely use a patient’s own cells—removed from the body, edited to change the cells’ genes in a potentially therapeutic way, then return the altered cells to the patient’s bloodstream to find their way to the appropriate place and work to treat the disease.  How that would work could differ—make the cells do something they wouldn’t normally do, or make them do something better than they otherwise do (as in altering immune cells to treat cancer); or maybe make them work normally so that the normal function would replace the patient’s diseased function (as in altering blood cells for people with sickle cell anemia so that the altered cells make normal hemoglobin to replace the person’s diseased hemoglobin).

Or maybe we could even edit out a gene that causes disease (sickle cell anemia, Huntington’s disease) or increases the risk of disease (e.g., BRCA and cancer) so that future generations wouldn’t inherit it.  Or maybe we could edit genes to enhance certain health-promoting or other desirable qualities.

The recent scientific enthusiasm for gene editing is fueled by the discovery of the relatively slick and easy-to-use (if you’re a scientist, anyway) CRISPR-Cas9 system, which is a sort of immune system for bacteria but can be used to edit/alter genes in a lot of different kinds of cells.

It turns out that cells’ normal system to repair gene damage can and does thwart this, reducing the efficiency of the process.  The key component to this is something called p53, a critical protein that, if abnormal, may not do its repair job so well.  When that happens, the risk of cancer increases, often dramatically.  In cancer research, abnormal p53 is high on the list of culprits to look out for.

Two groups of scientists, one from the drug company Novartis and one from the Karolinska Institute in Sweden, have published on this.  P53’s thwarting of gene editing is particularly active in pluripotent stem cells, that are some, but not the only, candidate cells to be edited to create treatments.  These cells are also constituent cells of human embryos.  If the CRISPR-Cas9 process is used on these cells, p53 usually kills them off—unless it’s lacking or deficient, in which case it doesn’t, but also in which case it means that the altered cells could themselves become cancers, later on.

This is something that has to be monitored carefully in developing cells as medicines, so to speak, with genetic editing.  One does not want the patient to appear to be healed, only to develop a cancer, or a new cancer, later on.  One certainly would want to know the risk of that before editing an embryo—an unborn human, a future baby if placed in the right environment—to create a gene-edited human being.

Yet, as I’ve written here in the past, it appears that experimentation in heritable gene editing is pressing on.  I’ve argued, and continue to argue, that heritable human gene editing is a line that must not be crossed, that would place too much trust in the providence of the scientists/technologists who are the “actors” exerting power over fellow humans who become “subjects” in a deep sense of the term; that the risks to the subjects are undefinable; that it would enable perception of humans as “engineering projects”; that the gift of life would tend to be replaced by seeking to limit birth to “the people we want”; that the people acted upon are unable to provide consent or know what risks have been chosen for them by others, even before birth.  Rather than press ahead, we in the human race should exercise a “presumption to forbear.”

A counter argument is that, in limited cases where the genetic defect is limited and known, the disease is terrible, treatment alternatives are few or none, that the risks are worth it.  The recent papers seem to expose that line as a bit too facile.  How many embryos created (and destroyed) to develop the technique before “taking it live?”  Could we work things out in animals—monkeys, maybe?  How many generations to alter, create, and follow to be sure that a late risk—such as cancer—does not emerge?  Or maybe our animal rights sensibilities stop us from putting monkeys at such risk—maybe mice will do?

The new papers are dense science.  Frankly, I can grasp the topline story but have trouble digesting all the details.  More sophisticated readers will not be so impaired.  The news report, in the English of the general public, can be read here, the Novartis and Karolinska reports read (but not downloaded or printed) here and here, respectively.

One Man’s Trash is Another Man’s DNA Treasure

Last month, investigators used big data analysis, public DNA genealogy websites and “Discarded DNA” to identify the Golden State Killer (WSJ subscription needed), an individual believed responsible for over 12 murders, greater than 50 rapes and over 100 burglaries in California between 1974 through 1986. While justice may be served if the legal case remains solid, there are some interesting bioethical issues that warrant discussion.

This blog has previously discussed the ethics of searching reportedly anonymized databases and the ability of algorithms to “unanonymize” the data (see HERE and HERE). The current technique used in the Golden State Killer case takes this one step further. Using a public genealogy database site, where individuals looking for distant relatives voluntarily share their personal DNA samples, investigators looked into these databases for partial DNA matches. A partial DNA match means that the investigators were looking for any relatives of the original suspect hoping to gain any identifying information of the relative, leading back to the original suspect. Then, using this narrower group of DNA relatives, investigators literally collected DNA samples this group of people unwittingly left behind, such as skin cells on a paper cup in the trash, so called discarded or abandoned DNA.

One man’s trash is another man’s DNA treasure.

Presently, neither the method of partial DNA search of public voluntary genealogy databases nor the collection of discarded DNA samples violates the 4th Amendment regarding unreasonable search and seizure. Neither the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996 (HIPAA) nor the Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act of 2008 (GINA) provide protection as none of the data relates to health care records or employment, respectively.

Shouldn’t some law or regulation prevent my personal DNA code from becoming public, particularly if I have not taken steps to publicize it on one of the many public voluntary genealogy sites?

Since your DNA is the ultimate physical marker of personal identity, how much control do you or should you have over it? While you may wish to live a life of anonymity, your extroverted cousin who voluntarily provides her DNA to a public DNA database has just unwittingly publicized some portion of your family DNA as well as traceable personal family data that may allow others to know more about you than you desire. An energetic sleuth dumpster-diving your trash can retrieve your actual DNA. I shred my mail to avoid my social security number or other personal financial information from being obtained and used for identity theft. How do I “shred my DNA” to prevent it from being similarly recovered from my trash?

What may someone do with my DNA information obtained using these techniques. What should someone be able to do?

You could not have convinced me back in 2001 that anyone would spend money to build cars with 360 video equipment and figure out optimal routes that would eventually become what is now Google Street View. Might not someone do the same thing with trash-sourced DNA samples, perhaps Google DNA View?

We already have figured out the garbage truck routes.

More on genetic medicine

The third and final installment from The Code, a series of 3 short documentaries on the internet about the origins of genetic medicine, is entitled “Selling the Code.”  This is about genetic testing to try to predict risks of diseases, among other things.  Doctors use some of this testing in clinical care and a burgeoning amount of research.  A number of companies, such as 23andMe, will, for a (not-too-high) price, sequence your genes, or at least some of them, from a cheek swab sample you send, and then give you a report of what the results are and what they might mean.  In cases where there is a simple connection between a genetic abnormality and a disease—if you have the gene, you get the disease—the approach can be very helpful.  But it’s rarely simple.  Even for known cancer-propensity genes like BRCA1 and BRCA2, there are many variants, and what they mean clinically is far from fully known.  In fact, for most of the common disease we care about, like heart disease, diabetes, and most cancers, the story is complicated indeed.  So what to do with the information is often far from obvious, and careful genetic counseling by a physician who specializes in genetic medicine is a must.

23andMe ran afoul of FDA a couple of years ago, leading to a long process that resulted in FDA acceptance of a more limited menu of testing by the company.

And some companies will sell you “genetic information” for more trivial concerns—presuming to tell you something meaningful about what fitness regimen you should pursue, or what wine you’ll like.  Caveat emptor, I suppose, although the risks are low for some of this.

AND—companies like 23andMe keep anonymized data bases of the genetic information they get for and from their customers, and sell that information to drug companies to support the latters’ research.  An individual can’t be identified in the process (at least, not readily, see my January 2013 post about “DNA research and (non)anonymity”) but the data in the aggregate is valuable to the genetic sequencing company.

These kinds of concerns—particularly what to do with an individual’s information, but also the usefulness of having genetic data on a large group of people to understand disease and help discover new treatments—are germane to an ongoing project of the Hastings Center to assess the implications of genetic testing of the whole genomes of large numbers of babies, to screen for any of several dozen genetic diseases.   Again, most of the babies will be perfectly healthy, and the yield from screening for rare conditions is low.  But people arguably have a right to know about themselves, and parents to know about their newborns.  Yet still, to what end will we use information that we don’t fully understand?  Read a good Los Angeles Times article, that overlaps some of the points in The Code’s video, and provides other useful information in quick-and-easy form, here.

Finally, I was gratified to read that a project to synthesize an entire human genome in the laboratory is being scaled back, at least for now.  Apparently, they can’t raise enough money.  I bet would-be investors aren’t convinced they could own the results and guarantee a return on their money.  I fretted about this in May of 2016 and again in July of the same year.  I encourage readers to click through and read those, as well as the concerns raised by Drew Endy of Stanford and Laurie Zoloth of Northwestern, who criticized both the effort in concept and the closed-door, invitation-only meeting at Harvard to plan it.

That was two full years ago.  A lot is going on under our noses.

New short videos on genetic topics

This week, an email from the Hastings Center promoted The Code, a series of 3 short documentaries on the internet about the origins of genetic medicine.  The three are being released one week at a time.  The first, released this week, briefly (12 minutes) reviews the determination, or sequencing, of the entire human genome, a project conducted in the 1990’s, and completed in 2000, by two labs—one in the government, one private—that initially worked in competition but ended working in collaboration.

It’s a nice review of the key points:

  • A person’s entire genome can be read fast—in a few hours—by an automatic process, at an ever-decreasing cost that now is on the order of $1000.
  • We still are FAR from understanding what the genetic code means for human disease. The number of cases in which there is a reasonably direct link between a single, or a small number, of genetic abnormalities and a gene, in a way that allows us to predict risk of disease or be able to make an enlightened selection of treatment, is still small.
  • With more reading of peoples’ genomes, and more computing power, what amounts to a massive pattern-recognition problem will likely yield more solutions that can be practically exploited to the benefit of human health. Some entities are collecting more peoples’ genomes in a database, for ongoing analysis and, at first, hypothesis generation—that is, “maybe this is a lead that could be acted on for benefit, after the proper follow-on research.”
  • But for now, we should not get carried away—”personalized medicine” is not generally “ready for prime time,” but useful only in a few specific situations, and often most appropriately the subject of new medical research. And one should be careful to get well-informed advice from a medical professional who is expert in genetic medicine, and not over-interpret what a commercial entity might be advising.  (But that, about which this blog has commented in the past, is for another time and another posting.)

This first video does not get into ethical issues—e.g., of justice, privacy, and the like.  But it is a good, quick, engaging overview suitable for the general public.  (BTW, I hate calling non-scientists and non-physicians “lay people,” a term I think best reserved to distinguish most of us from the clergy, and the abuse of which just reinforces the notion of medical scientists as a sort of “priesthood.”)

The second video in the series, due out next week, is on gene editing, and the third, the week after, will address companies that are willing to sequence your genes and tell you, for a price, what they think it might all mean.

Toward true public engagement about gene editing

The March 22, 2018 edition of Nature includes two thoughtful, helpful commentaries about improving the public dialogue around “bleeding edge” biotechnologies.  In this case, the example is gene editing, of which one commentator, Simon Burall from the U.K., says, “Like artificial intelligence, gene editing could radically alter almost every domain of life.”  Burall’s piece, “Don’t wait for an outcry about gene editing,” can be found here.  The other commentary, “A global observatory for gene editing,” by Harvard’s Sheila Jasanoff and J. Benjamin Hurlbut from Arizona State, can be found here, and an umbrella editorial from the editors of Nature is here.  All are open-access and all are worth reading by any citizen who would like to be informed at even a general level about the ethical discussions of biotechnology.

The three share this tone: more inclusiveness, more humility on the part of scientists, and willingness to have difficult conversations are called for—and have been generally lacking in past efforts to engage the public in discussion of the implications of new biotechnologies.  In the view of Jasanoff and Hurlbut, even the much-admired 1975 Asilomar conference that established boundaries on recombinant DNA research and its applications, was too narrow, focusing on technically-definable risks and benefits but not taking time to reflect more deeply on the ultimate ramifications of what the scientists were doing.  The experts dominate, and lecture—gently, but clearly—the “laity.”  This can create a sort of foregone-conclusion effect: getting people comfortable with the research agenda and the scientists’ and technologists’ (including industry players’) goals is the true point.  The possibility that some work simply should not be pursued for a while may scarcely be expressed, much less heeded.  As Hans Jonas said in a reflection about Asilomar, “Scientific inquiry demands untrammeled freedom for itself.”

Burall, Jasanoff, and Hurlbut seem to be saying, repent from that, as it were.  Don’t just have a panel of a dozen scientists or so meet for a single seminar or webinar with a dozen or so non-scientists (with, I might add, the token clergyperson).  Create a clearinghouse for a wide range of views on what gene editing really might mean, and how humans should respond.  Open the dialogue to a large number, not just a few, non-scientists from a wide range of perspectives.  Pay attention to cultures other than the developed West—especially the global South.  Perhaps start with seminars that are cooperatively organized by several groups representing different interests or stakeholders, but don’t stop there—create a platform for many, many people to weigh in.  And so on.

They don’t suggest it will be easy.  And we do have a sort of clearinghouse already—I call it the Internet.  And we’d want to be sure—contra John Rawls—that viewpoints (yes, I’m thinking of God-centered perspectives) are not disqualified from the outset as violating the terms of the discussion.  And, perhaps most importantly, what threshold of public awareness/understanding/agreement would be insisted upon to ground public policy?  Surely a simple popular majority would be suspect, but unanimity—achievable in smaller groups, with difficulty—would be impossible.  And concerns about “fake news” or populist tendencies run amok (the “angry villagers”) would be unavoidable.

But, as Jasanoff and Hurlbut say, “In current bioethical debates, there is a tendency to fall back on the framings that those at the frontiers of research find most straightforward and digestible…[debate must not be limited by] the premise that, until the technical capability does exist, it is not necessary to address difficult questions about whether [some] interventions are desirable…Profound and long-standing traditions of moral reflection risk being excluded when they do not conform to Western ideas of academic bioethics.”

Bingo and amen.  How to make it happen, I am not sure.  Jasanoff and Hurlbut say they are trying to get beyond binary arguments about the permissibility or impermissibility of germline genome editing, for example.  Still, I don’t see how the “cosmopolitan” public reflection they advocate can go on without agreeing on something like a fairly firm moratorium—a provisional “presumption to forebear,” as I like to put it—while the conversation proceeds.  And hey, we’re the Anglosphere.  We’re dynamic, innovative, progressive, pragmatic, visionary.  We don’t do moratoria.   Moratoria are for those Continental European fraidy-cats.  Then again, these writers are seeking a truly global discussion.  And past agreement by assembled nation-states appears to have at least slowed down things like chemical and biological munitions (recent events in Syria notwithstanding).

These authors are doing us a service with their reflections.  Read their articles, give them a careful hearing—and note that their email addresses are provided at the end.  Maybe I’ll write to them.