News Release

CRISPR Comes with Serious Threats

Emmanuelle Charpentier and Jennifer Doudna are slated to receive the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in Sweden on Thursday, Dec. 10 for developing the genome-editing technology CRISPR.

STUART NEWMAN, stuart_newman@nymc.edu, @sanewman1

Newman is co-author of the book Biotech Juggernaut: Hope, Hype and Hidden Agendas of Entrepreneurial Bioscience (Routledge, 2019). His past books include Biological Physics of the Developing Embryo (Cambridge University Press, 2005). In 1997, he filed the first ever patent for human chimera (combination) with a chimpanzee. Not because he wanted to create it, but because he wanted to prevent others from doing so and to challenge the rules for patenting life. See 2005 piece in the Washington Post about his lengthy legal fight: “U.S. Denies Patent for a Too-Human Hybrid.”

Newman recently wrote the piece “Engineering Future People Would be a Disaster,” writing: “Studies in animals, including one described recently in Wired, show that the gene manipulation technique CRISPR has a habit of inserting bacterial DNA along with the desired sequences into various sites in chromosomes, with unknown consequences. Even more alarming was a news article last month in the scientific journal Nature that bore the title ‘CRISPR Gene Editing in Human Embryos Wreaks Chromosomal Mayhem.’ It reported results described in three preprints — ready-to-be-published studies — by several prominent investigators in the field that attempted to make specific, targeted changes in the embryos’ DNA, the sort of alterations that might be tried to prevent a newborn from inheriting a gene associated with a disabling condition. There was no intention by the scientists to bring these embryos to birth. They were just being used experimentally to see if the technique worked. It didn’t.

“Thus, even if the modification method were perfect, the variability of human biology means that we won’t know what the outcome will be. The new results, however, cast strong doubt on the CRISPR technique itself. In the words of the Nature news story, ‘the process can make large, unwanted changes to the genome at or near the target site.’ …

“The techniques of embryo engineering have now been shown to be flawed. Embryos are just too complex to engineer. We must ban, not simply pause, gene editing of human embryos before biomedical entrepreneurs start offering clients the opportunity to modify their offspring, threatening their health and hijacking their identities before they are even born.”

He said in a recent interview: “It’s not simply (as the writer Walter Isaacson asks) ‘Should the Rich be Allowed to Buy the Best Genes?’ but that the whole idea of perfecting humans based on nebulous genetic theories is misconceived. Sometimes it may work, or appear to work, but other times it will fail, producing people with impairments they would otherwise not have had. Sometimes it won’t even be clear what the effect was. Advocates will say that unmanipulated nature can also produce unsatisfactory outcomes. But introducing irreversible experimental errors in pursuit of human biological improvement would be an entirely novel and troubling development in human history.”

See past interview with Newman by The Real News.