News Release

* Problems with Nobel Peace Prize * CRISPR: Engineering Future People?

The Nobel Peace Prize is to be announced Friday at 11 a.m. Norway time. The Nobel Prize in Chemistry was awarded on Wednesday to Emmanuelle Charpentier and Jennifer A. Doudna for their work on CRISPR, a controversial method of editing DNA.

FREDRIK S. HEFFERMEHL, fredpax@online.no@nobelpeacewatch
Heffermehl is with Nobel Peace Prize Watch and wrote the book The Nobel Peace Prize: What Nobel Really Wanted. He is critical of the Norwegian Nobel Committee, which picks the recipients. Heffermehl states that it has not followed Alfred Nobel’s criteria for the Prize. His most recent book is Behind the Medals, a study of the Committee’s internal archives. See: “The Nobel Committee condemned in new book.”

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) and recently co-wrote the piece “Engineering Future People Would be a Disaster,” which states: “Modifying genes shows promise in curing medical conditions in sick people. Should it be used to make irreversible changes in people who don’t yet exist? Current research suggests that this would be a big mistake.

“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.’

“Genetic modification of animals such as humans can be either somatic or embryonic. Somatic modification affects limited tissues or organs in an existing person who is ill. Certain forms of blindness, sickle cell disease, and some other conditions are today targeted by such treatments. We take no issue with somatic modification provided it is carefully monitored as to medical need and conflicting commercial interests.

“With embryo engineering, however, changes made, including mistakes, will be passed on to future generations via the reproductive cells (or germline). In fact, every cell in the body of the new individual is affected, making that person something different from what they would have been without the intervention. This may be done, at least initially, to prevent the transmission of disease-associated genes. But with outcomes so uncertain, what will be the fate of children resulting from these experiments?

“Entrepreneurial scientists eased the way to acceptance of embryonic editing by downplaying technical problems and by issuing vague reassurances that they will not go too far, too fast. Yet they never explained what they meant by this. …

“Any line that once existed between academic research and commerce has worn thin. Researchers at universities and institutes who were once relatively shielded from business interests now sit on the boards of and own shares in biotech companies that are major sources of scientific funding and infrastructure. Scientists who overstep cultural norms or federal restrictions rarely suffer consequences beyond the loss of their federal funding. In the U.S., private corporations or even states will define their own acceptable practices regarding embryo engineering. How these entities define too far, too fast, is completely subjective — a recipe for human disaster.

“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.”

See interviews with Newman by The Real News (2018), the Organic Association of America (2020) and his talk with the group Genetics and Society (2008).