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September 01, 2016

Brave New Technology: Brave New Babies

Eileen Smith Ewing

Gene editing (GE)—the focus of this issue of The SciTech Lawyer—combines elements a science fiction thriller would find hard to match: A breakthrough technology with the potential to affect all life, both as we know it and as we cannot yet imagine it, for good or ill. A clash among scientific titans, broken down on gender lines, at major universities as to patent rights and the ability to monetize and commercially develop GE research results. The struggles of legislators domestically and internationally to grapple with the technology’s present moral implications and unforeseeable future implementations.

The currently most used GE technology, CRISPR/Cas9, had its beginning some 30 years ago, when scientists found that strands of some bacterial DNA include clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats (CRISPRs). Between these short repeating segments of DNA base pairs are DNA “spacers,” produced when the bacterium has been invaded by a virus. When the viral invader is spotted again by the bacterium, the spacers dispatch a set of enzymes that snip the offensive parts of the invader’s DNA. Research teams on either coast (Feng Zhang of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the Broad Institute; Jennifer Doudna and Emmanuelle Charpentier of the University of California, Berkeley) each separately and successfully applied the use of the CRISPR cut-and-paste tool in editing mammal and plant DNA. This has resulted in a critically important patent fight that may take years to decide. Meanwhile, science is not standing still. Use of CRISPRs in genetic research—including on the human genome—is burgeoning.

It would be hard to underestimate the potential of the GE breakthrough. The CRISPR tool could cure many diseases; it could lead to more efficient biofuels and more disease-resistant crops. Yet many are concerned that this brave new technology is ripe for misuse, if not properly regulated. Representative George William “Bill” Foster (D-Ill.), a physicist and the only current member of Congress with a PhD, stated in December 2015: “It is very rare that prominent members of the scientific community come together to warn our leaders of technological breakthroughs that our legal system and our society may not be prepared for, and yet that is exactly what is happening with the discovery of gene editing tools.” GE, he said, is an issue for the entire human race.

Beginning with an overview of GE research historically, Larry Thorpe and Michael Gundry’s article includes a helpful diagram showing how CRISPR works to repair DNA. Articles from Jordan Paradise and James Lawford Davies explore the differing regulation of human embryo GE (HEGE) in the United States and United Kingdom. Brendan Parent and Barbara Evans each explore ethical issues raised by GE and HEGE; the former’s approach is human-centric, while the latter emphasizes GE’s technological benefits. Finally, Gary Marchant takes a lawyer’s look at the potential liability issues raised by GE.

Meanwhile, for the Section of Science & Technology Law, the 2016–2017 bar year is in full swing. We continue to plan our 2nd Annual National Institute on the Internet of Things in Washington, D.C., on May 10–11, 2017. A myriad of SciTech CLE programs are on the drawing board for the months ahead. And if you find yourself in Miami, Florida, February 2–5, 2017, please do attend our Midyear Meeting at the Intercontinental Hotel. Registration is free—and it’s the best way to meet leaders of our 24 substantive committees, ranging from privacy and security to life and physical sciences to cutting-edge interdisciplinary topics. It’s also the best way to get personally involved in your Section. I hope to welcome you there.