23 Dec 2018

A panel discussion on gene editing, ethics, and whether you should do something just because you can

From Smart Talk at the Auckland Museum, 4:06 pm on 23 December 2018
CRISPR-Cas9 is a customisable tool which lets scientists cut and insert small pieces of DNA at precise areas along a DNA strand. This allows for very specific study and modification of genes.

CRISPR-Cas9 is a customisable tool which lets scientists cut and insert small pieces of DNA at precise areas along a DNA strand. This allows for very specific study and modification of genes. Photo: Flickr / Human Genome Project

Discussing the current state of genetic modification, Dr Heather Hendrickson quotes a fictional character played by Jeff Goldblum from the film Jurassic Park.  His role in the movie is to provide sceptical commentary about how scientific aspiration can go astray. 

Although the genetic modification envisaged by that film (now 25 years old) has been superseded by the new CRISPER-Cas technology, Goldblum’s character still has to something say to us today, according to Dr Henrickson.

In particular, she quotes him musing that scientists were so concerned about whether or not they could do something, they didn’t ask themselves whether or not they should.

And answering that implied question, says Auckland University’s Professor Tim Dare, is what philosophy is for, as it addresses dilemmas which don’t have straightforward empirical answers. “There isn’t any test you can do to settle should we do this? Is this right? Should we be worried about the fact that in the future people may have different access to the technology? That’s the stuff of philosophy.”

According to Prof. Dare, philosophy is not indifferent to the facts. “But science is only going to take you so far. And then we’ll have to start asking, what’s just, what’s fair, what’s appropriate?”

August  Rodin's sculpture The Thinker

August Rodin's sculpture The Thinker Photo: Flickr / Steve Fernie

He wants to knock on the head the view that new technologies such as CRISPR-Cas gene editing are constrained by ethics. Having sat on lots of ethics committees giving guidance to researchers on the projects they are putting forward, he struggles to remember when any proposal was met by a flat refusal, and the comment “You can’t do that.”

Instead, his experience is that researchers may be told “You can’t do it quite the way you want to. Or that there are some considerations here. You have to put in a few protections. You have to tidy up your consent processes.”

From his perspective, ethics is not trying to get in the way of research, but simply aimed at making sure that we do research properly and that we’re pleased with what we get out of it.

Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory researchers work on how CRISPR is used by microorganisms to generate immunological immunity

Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory researchers work on how CRISPR is used by microorganisms to generate immunological immunity Photo: Flickr / US Dept of Energy

When Assoc. Prof Peter Fineran started working on CRISPR-Cas in his lab ten years ago he chafed at the ethical rules requiring his research to be approved before it could be undertaken. “It took me at that time,” he recalls, “close to six months to get permits to do very basic things with bacteria which were very standard anywhere else in the world.”

For a young researcher wanting to get stuck in, that was a hindrance. He concedes that since then “it has got a bit better as things have been streamlined at the University of Otago. I’m lucky because I work on bacteria and no-one cares whether I kill ten billion bacteria during the day.”

However, colleagues working with animal models or doing anything for release are still frustrated today. In agriculture and horticulture he feels that some fantastic innovations which could increase yields or reduce chemical usage due to greater disease resistance are being held up by ethical red tape.

Pipettes and test tubes

Photo: Flickr / Luca Volpi

Prof. Dare considers that there is a spectrum of value in genetic modification – one where the extremes are relatively straightforward. “There may be quite a broad consensus that we ought to use these technologies if we can to help people with terrible disorders such as Duchenne muscular dystrophy, or cystic fibrosis."

Those, he says, are clearly disorders, “And if we can fix them, then clearly we should do so. I might agree with Steven Pinker it might even be unethical not to do that.”

At the other end of the spectrum, though are matters such as eye colour, or male baldness. The latter, he says, is “a bit of a disorder. People spend a lot of money trying to get it fixed.” But he thinks that most people, rightly, wouldn’t support genetic modification to treat something as trivial, even though it affects so many in the population.

It's in the middle ground that most arguments lie - the situations where there might be some benefit, but the costs and unforeseen consequences need to be taken account of. He also asks, “What counts as a disorder, and what do we lose when we lose some of these conditions?" 

Citing genetic modifications which might address violence (assuming that there is such a gene), he wonders if we might find that whatever it is that makes people a bit quick-tempered also makes them creative. "So where is the line between treating and illness and adding an enhancement?”

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Photo: 123rf

More reading

Recent news about what’s claimed as the world’s first gene-edited baby

Genetic modification today

CRISPR and food

Editing our genes: medical issues

Editing our genes: human reproduction

Editing our genes: agriculture

Editing our genes: pest control

About the participants

Prof Tim Dare, Dr Heather Hendrickson, Assoc. Prof Peter Fineran, Assoc. Prof Maui Hudson

Prof Tim Dare, Dr Heather Hendrickson, Assoc. Prof Peter Fineran, Assoc. Prof Maui Hudson Photo: Auckland Museum

Tim Dare

Tim Dare is a Professor of Philosophy at the University of Auckland. He worked briefly as a lawyer before doing his PhD in the philosophy of law and starting his academic career in the early 1990s.

His publications include books and articles on the philosophy of law, legal ethics, immunisation programmes, the significance of judicial disagreement, parental rights and medical decisions, the proper allocation of the burden of proof, and the use of predictive analytics in child protection.

Employed by New Zealand’s Ministry of Social Development his role is to provide data ethics advice and to develop privacy, human rights, and ethical review processes for proposed uses of client data. He has provided ethical reviews of a number of predictive risk modelling tools in New Zealand and the US.

Tim is principal investigator on a NZ Royal Society Marsden Grant (2018-2020) investigating the ethics of using predictive risk modelling tools in social policy contexts. He sits on a number of local and national research and clinical ethics committees.

Peter Fineran

Peter Fineran is an Associate Professor in the Department of Microbiology and Immunology at the University of Otago. Peter has established an international reputation for his research on the interactions between bacteriophages and other mobile elements and their bacterial hosts.

A major focus of his lab are the CRISPR-Cas adaptive prokaryotic immune systems. He is recognised as a world leader in the CRISPR-Cas field and was the keynote speaker at the CRISPR2017 conference in the USA. He completed his PhD and post-doctoral training at the University of Cambridge, UK. He has made critical contributions to understanding CRISPR-Cas systems, such as how these systems acquire new immune memories and uncovering the mechanisms of CRISPR-Cas regulation.

Peter has received many awards in recognition of his research contributions, such as a Rutherford Discovery Fellowship from the Royal Society of NZ and the Ross Crozier Medal from the Genetics Society of AustralAsia.

Dr Heather Hendrickson

Dr Heather Hendrickson completed her PhD work studying bacterial evolution and horizontal gene transfer at the University of Pittsburgh. She was then awarded a prestigious Human Frontier of Science Program Long Term Fellowship to work in the Biochemistry Department at Oxford University.

Heather is currently a Senior Lecturer in Molecular Bioscience at Massey University in Auckland. Her research group works on how bacteria evolve with an eye towards understanding what innovations we can expect from them in the future. They are currently pursuing projects that involve the evolution of symbiosis and pathogenicity in bacteria.

Her research group and her undergraduate students at Massey University are also phage hunters. Phage hunting involves discovering and studying new bacteriophages, the viruses that infect bacteria.

Maui Hudson

Maui Hudson is an Associate Professor in the Faculty of Māori and Indigenous Studies at the University of Waikato. He co-authored the Te Ara Tika Guidelines on Māori Research Ethics, Te Mata Ira Guidelines on Genomic Research with Māori, and He Tangata Kei Tua Guidelines on Biobanking with Māori.

Maui is currently working on projects looking at Genomic Research on Taonga Species, and Māori views on Gene Editing. He has previously been a member of the Ethics Committee for Assisted Reproductive Technologies, and the Advisory Committee for Assisted Reproductive Technologies.

His interest is in the intersection of matauranga Māori and new technologies is around how they can be harnessed to reduce inequities.

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Photo: Auckland Museum

Smart Talk at the Auckland Museum is a part of the LATE at Auckland Museum season.