The new CRISPR gene-editing technology is an incredible tool, but it could be used for ethically-troubling procedures like human eugenics, modification of human germline cells, genetically-modified crops, gene drives to wipe out species and on and on and on. How can its uses be restricted?
Writing in Nature Biotechnology, several academics from Baylor College of Medicine in Houston and New York Law School, suggest that ethical licencing by patent holders is a necessary complement to government legislation.
The Broad Institute, in Boston, owns the foundational patents for the CRISPR process. It recently licensed the technology to chemical giant Monsanto with three provisos: (1) not to conduct gene drives, (2) not create sterile “terminator” seeds which farmers would be forced to buy new every year, and (3) not to conduct research to commercialize tobacco products which would add to the public health burden of smoking.
Two years ago, it also licensed CRISPR to Editas Medicine provided that Editas did not use it to to modify human germ cells or embryos or to modify animal cells for the creation or commercialization of organs suitable for transplantation into humans.
“Innovators should follow the Broad Institute’s lead and adopt the practice of using patent licenses to restrict socially harmful applications of their technologies. To be clear, we do not mean to suggest that licensing bans are preferable to, or should be used to the exclusion of, policymaking or professional standards setting. Rather, we believe that the promotion of private efforts as a complement to public efforts is worthy of serious consideration,” says Baylor ethicist Christi Guerrini.
Donald Trump was a different sort of candidate and he gave a different sort of inaugural speech. It was short, sharp, divisive and isolationist, the kind of remarks that usually precede a massive swamp-draining project. But in one respect it was similar to speeches by other presidents: bioethics was not a major theme.
He did say that "We stand at the birth of a new millennium, ready to unlock the mysteries of space, to free the earth from the miseries of disease" -- which sounds vaguely promising for scientific and medical research.
His twice-repeated invocation of the Almighty suggests that he might follow a Christian line on controversial issues like contraception, abortion and assisted suicide.
But who knows? Mr Trump is a bit like that quintessentially American poet Walt Whitman -- "Do I contradict myself? Very well then I contradict myself, (I am large, I contain multitudes.)" No one really knows what he has in mind about a range of topics. Buckle up. It's going to be a bumpy ride.
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BioEdge: Using patents to restrict harmful applications of CRISPR