Oct 1, 2019

Genetic technology's double-edged sword

Caitlin Owens, author of Vitals

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

Updated 18 mins ago - Politics & Policy

George Floyd protests: What you need to know

Police block protesters at a rally on May 30 outside the state house on the fourth straight day of demonstrations against the death of George Floyd. Photo: Megan Jelinger/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

Protests over the death of George Floyd and other police-related killings of black men spread across the U.S. Saturday, amid tense standoffs with police in several cities.

The big picture: Floyd's fatal run-in with police is the latest reminder of the disparities between black and white communities in the U.S. and comes as African Americans grapple with higher death rates from the coronavirus and higher unemployment from trying to stem its spread.

U.S. cities crack down on protests against police brutality

Photo: Megan Jelinger/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

Major U.S. cities have implemented curfews and called on National Guard to mobilize as thousands of demonstrators gather across the nation to continue protesting the death of George Floyd.

The state of play: Hundreds have already been arrested as tensions continue to rise between protesters and local governments. Protesters are setting police cars on fire as freeways remain blocked and windows are shattered, per the Washington Post. Law enforcement officials are using tear gas and rubber bullets to try to disperse crowds and send protesters home.

Trump to invite Russia and other non-member G7 countries to summit

President Trump at Cape Canaveral, Florida, on Saturday. Photo: Saul Martinez/Getty Images

President Trump told reporters on Saturday evening he would postpone the G7 summit to September and expand the meeting to more nations that are not members of the Group of 7.

Details: Trump said he would invite Russia, South Korea, Australia and India to the summit, according to a pool report. "I don’t feel that as a G7 it properly represents what’s going on in the world. It’s a very outdated group of countries," he said.