Oct 1, 2019

Genetic technology's double-edged sword

Illustration of breaking pencil erasing gene sequence
Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

As gene-altering technologies become more accessible, there's also a growing risk that they'll be dangerously misused or abused.

Why it matters: "You're talking about manipulating DNA to create a designer pathogen. That’s a terrorist threat," former FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb told me.

The big picture: Ethical questions about CRISPR, the gene editing tool, are as old as the technology itself, and they intensified last year with the news of the first gene-edited babies in China.

  • These questions have been further complicated by the fact that genetic alteration technologies are now relatively cheap and easy to use.
  • “These threats have been on people’s mind and on the horizon for a long time. I think now they’re just becoming more manifest because costs are coming down, the technology is more manageable — you don’t have to be as sophisticated to deploy it," Gottlieb said.

Driving the news: NPR reported last week that as synthetic DNA gets cheaper and easier to make, there's growing concern about the technology being used to create bioweapons or dangerous viruses.

  • Josiah Zayner, a "biohacker" who became notorious for using CRISPR on himself in 2017, runs The ODIN, a company that sells DIY gene-editing kits online and teaches people how to use CRISPR. The kits are available on Amazon.
  • California passed a law this summer that outlaws the sale of DIY genetic engineering kits unless they come with explicit warnings that they're not to be used for self-administration, Vox reports.

At the same time, scientific advances in genetics have made breakthrough therapies possible.

  • Only 3 weeks ago, Chinese researchers used CRISPR technology to safely treat a man with cancer and HIV, Bloomberg reported.
  • Legitimate drug development comes with its own complicated ethical questions. Patients and parents of children with life-threatening diseases are likely to start asking for experimental gene therapies, STAT reported last week.

Gene testing — as opposed to gene altering — poses new risks, as well.

  • When consumer DNA testing databases began being used by law enforcement to crack criminal cases, privacy questions arose. And privacy issues have been amplified as medical and sperm donors have lost their assurance of anonymity.
  • DNA testing has also opened the door to creative forms of fraud. Just last week, federal agents took down an alleged Medicare fraud scheme in which seniors were convinced to get their cheeks swabbed for unnecessary DNA tests, as STAT reports.

Go deeper: The ethical red flags of genetically edited babies

Go deeper