Scarcely a week goes by without the announcement of another breakthrough owing to advancing biotechnology. Recent examples include the use of gene editing tools to successfully alter human embryos or clone monkeys; new immunotherapy-based treatments offering longer lives or even potential cures for previously deadly cancers; and the creation of genetically altered mosquitos using “gene drives” to quickly introduce changes into the population in an ecosystem and alter the capacity to carry disease.
Each of these examples puts pressure on current policy guidelines and approaches, some existing since the late 1970s, which were created to help guide the introduction of controversial new life sciences technologies. But do the policies that made sense decades ago continue to make sense today, or do the tools created during different eras in science demand new ethics guidelines and policies?
Advances in biotechnology aren’t new of course, and in fact have been the hallmark of science since the creation of the modern U.S. National Institutes of Health in the 1940s and similar government agencies elsewhere. Funding agencies focused on health sciences research with the hope of creating breakthroughs in human health, and along the way, basic science discoveries led to the creation of new scientific tools that offered the ability to approach life, death, and disease in fundamentally new ways.
For example, take the discovery in the 1970s of the “chemical scissors” in living cells called restriction enzymes, which could be controlled and used to introduce cuts at predictable locations in a strand of DNA. This led to the creation of tools that for the first time allowed for genetic modification of any organism with DNA, which meant bacteria, plants, animals, and even humans could in theory have harmful mutations repaired, but also that changes could be made to alter or even add genetic traits, with potentially ominous implications.
The scientists involved in that early research convened a small conference to discuss not only the science, but how to responsibly control its potential uses and their implications. The meeting became known as the Asilomar Conference for the meeting center where it was held, and is often noted as the prime example of the scientific community policing itself. While the Asilomar recommendations were not sufficient from a policy standpoint, they offered a blueprint on which policies could be based and presented a model of the scientific community setting responsible controls for itself.
But the environment for conducting science changed over the succeeding decades and it is dramatically different today than it was in the 1970s, 80s, or even the early 2000s. The regime for oversight and regulation that has provided controls for the introduction of so-called “gene therapy” in humans starting in the mid-1970s is beginning to show signs of fraying. The vast majority of such research was performed in the U.S., U.K., and Europe, where policies were largely harmonized. But as the tools for manipulating humans at the molecular level advanced, they also became more reliable and more precise, as well as cheaper and easier to use—think CRISPR—and therefore more accessible to more people in many more countries, many without clear oversight or policies laying out responsible controls.
As if to make the point through news headlines, scientists in China announced in 2017 that they had attempted to perform gene editing on in vitro human embryos to repair an inherited mutation for beta thalassemia–research that would not be permitted in the U.S. and most European countries and at the time was also banned in the U.K. Similarly, specialists from a reproductive medicine clinic in the U.S. announced in 2016 that they had performed a highly controversial reproductive technology by which DNA from two women is combined (so-called “three parent babies”), in a satellite clinic they had opened in Mexico to avoid existing prohibitions on the technique passed by the U.S. Congress in 2015.
In both cases, genetic changes were introduced into human embryos that if successful would lead to the birth of a child with genetically modified germline cells—the sperm in boys or eggs in girls—with those genetic changes passed on to all future generations of related offspring. Those are just two very recent examples, and it doesn’t require much imagination to predict the list of controversial possible applications of advancing biotechnologies: attempts at genetic augmentation or even cloning in humans, and alterations of the natural environment with genetically engineered mosquitoes or other insects in areas with endemic disease. In fact, as soon as this month, scientists in Africa may release genetically modified mosquitoes for the first time.
The technical barriers are falling at a dramatic pace, but policy hasn’t kept up, both in terms of what controls make sense and how to address what is an increasingly global challenge. There is no precedent for global-scale science policy, though that is exactly what this moment seems to demand. Mechanisms for policy at global scale are limited–-think UN declarations, signatory countries, and sometimes international treaties, but all are slow, cumbersome and have limited track records of success.
But not all the news is bad. There are ongoing efforts at international discussion, such as an international summit on human genome editing convened in 2015 by the National Academies of Sciences and Medicine (U.S.), Royal Academy (U.K.), and Chinese Academy of Sciences (China), a follow-on international consensus committee whose report was issued in 2017, and an upcoming 2nd international summit in Hong Kong in November this year.
These efforts need to continue to focus less on common regulatory policies, which will be elusive if not impossible to create and implement, but on common ground for the principles that ought to guide country-level rules. Such principles might include those from the list proposed by the international consensus committee, including transparency, due care, responsible science adhering to professional norms, promoting wellbeing of those affected, and transnational cooperation. Work to create a set of shared norms is ongoing and worth continued effort as the relevant stakeholders attempt to navigate what can only be called a brave new world.