An unlikely, but important infectious disease threat to consider in 2019.
Although it may not be the most urgent concern right now, the world of genome editing and synthetic biology is one that has the infectious disease community increasingly worried.
Genome-editing technologies such as Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats (CRISPR) allow scientists to edit DNA in specific sections of genetic code. These methods have grown in popularity as scientists continue to refine the process and work through many of the technical kinks. Researchers are increasingly worried, however, because the use of CRISPR without any sort of oversight triggers a whole host of ethical questions that have yet to be answered.
CRISPR has great potential to improve the human condition through research, medicine, agriculture, etc. With great power though, comes great responsibility; there is a real concern that the technology is moving too fast for its own good and too fast for governance, regulation, and oversight to keep up. Biosecurity experts have been raising the red flag about the disruptive nature of genome editing, pointing out that the manipulation of biological systems and processes can have untold consequences. A recent study published by investigators from George Mason and Stanford universities notes that the technology must be taken seriously and the broader and ever-evolving landscape of biosecurity must be considered. For instance, it is possible that genome editing could one day be used to create biological weapons—think of a totally resistant tuberculosis or an influenza with increased virulence.
The growing popularity of genome editing also means that these technologies are no longer restricted to laboratories where there is some degree of oversight and regulatory processes; they now extend to the everyman’s garage. That’s right—there are people performing genome editing right in their own homes. DIY (Do It Yourself) biohacking allows people to play around with gene editing technologies at home, with zero supervision or guidance. It’s not difficult to think about what the repercussions could be if the wrong person experiments with the genomic modification of viral or bacterial DNA.
A single bad actor aside, the world of genome editing lacks a set of ethical principles and overarching guidance. This rings especially true with the recent news of a Chinese researcher who claimed to have engineered the first CRISPR-edited babies. Although there are massive ethical considerations and a global consensus to stay away from “designing” human embryos, this happened anyway. This highlights the point that some researchers may still be willing to go beyond the brink of safety and ethics, and that could have devastating consequences. Sure, genetically engineering mosquitos to wipe out malaria would be an amazing feat, but without proper regulation or framework for vetting the larger, more permanent ecosystem implications, we must exercise caution.
Consider the 2017 horsepox synthesis that shook the science community. There, a researcher with “little specialized knowledge” synthesized an orthopoxvirus after mail-ordering DNA. Prior to publication, there were concerns within the biosecurity and biosafety communities regarding the implication of publishing a “how-to” for creating an orthopoxvirus and close relative of smallpox. As health security expert and co-author of the George Mason/Stanford biosecurity report Gregory Koblentz, PhD, noted, “this research is all risk and no reward. Given the known risks of this research for pioneering a technique that can be used to recreate variola virus and the questionable benefits, I think this article raises serious questions about the proprietary of a private company sponsoring such high-risk research without any oversight.”
From horsepox to using CRISPR in babies to your DIY garage biohacker down the street, there are a host of reasons why genome editing is something to keep on your infectious disease radar in 2019. We mustn’t forget that, beyond the glimmering potential of CRISPR lies darker, more nefarious possibilities.