New Scientist – The gene-editing revolution continues to gather pace, but it is also throwing us curveballs. One is an unexpected technical hitch (see “Mosaic problem stands in the way of gene editing embryos“). Another concerns oversight and ownership: who gets to use it, and for what?
In January, David Ishee, a dog breeder from Mississippi, told the US Food and Drug Administration that he planned to use CRISPR gene editing to fix a mutation that makes Dalmatians prone to kidney disease (see “How dogs are helping decode the genetic roots of personality“).
The FDA responded by telling Ishee that he could experiment, but not sell or even give away his modified dogs. The law was recently amended so that gene-edited animals require approval before they can be sold.
But the FDA also said it would reconsider if presented with evidence that certain types of gene editing pose “minimal risk”. How that will be defined or decided is not clear, but it means we could soon see a cottage industry of gene-edited animals created in biohackers’ sheds.
At first glance, that seems an amazingly laissez-faire attitude towards a technology that the US director of national intelligence last year flagged as a threat to national security. Any tinkering with genes raises the spectre of bioterrorism.
In reality, the FDA is walking a fine line, trying to keep abreast of a fast-moving field without stifling innovation. It cannot allow the biohacker tail to wag the CRISPR dog. But the problem requires a more sophisticated response than retrofitting old laws to new problems.
Most biohackers are motivated by curiosity or altruism. But clearly this is not enough of a safeguard. Quite apart from the prospect of bad actors, US intelligence has also warned of “unintentional misuse”.
The risk can’t be contained by restricting uses of CRISPR, just as nobody can stop people making bombs out of fertiliser. But the technical simplicity that makes CRISPR such an exciting technology also risks creating an unruly beast that the authorities must find a way to tame.