Seminar: CRISPR in Context

Written by: Karmella Haynes. Tonight Emma Frow, from Arizona State University, discussed a popular technology for bioengineering called CRISPR and its societal implications. Dr. Frow specializes in biotechnology policy and practices. She works with many leading scientists to develop ways to consider societal and environmental impacts of biotechnology.


Emma recalled going to several conferences and hearing almost everyone talking about CRISPR. Every week there is more and more CRISPR coverage in the news. According to students who were asked, CRISPR is simple, elegant, cheap (<$100), flexible, powerful, and precise. CRISPR has been shown to work in 36 organisms to date. The number of articles and patents mentioning CRISPR are growing uncommonly fast. The CRISPR-based market is being treated like a “red-water” zone for industry sharks…some small companies are steering clear, and large ones are shoring up for patent battles.

In the scientific community, there is a lot of concern about what CRISPR will look like in the public space. In January 2015, a meeting was held to discuss these concerns. Commentaries were published by scientists in Science and Nature, calling for a moratorium against using CRISPR to modify human embryos.

A paper published that same month was the first announcement of the use of CRISPR in human embryos, “CRISPR/Cas9-mediated gene editing in tripronuclear zygotes” (Protein and Cell, 2015). It is rumored that the manuscript was rejected by Nature and Science. Editors who saw the submission advocated the meeting to discuss concerns. A flurry of policy and scientific discussions that began around March 2015 can be expected to continue through the coming fall.

Emma’s interest is focused on the question “who gets to decide whether a technology is pursued and under what conditions?” How do we structure governance of science? How does it vary in different countries?

Emma’s seminar sparked a lively discussion about the decisions and conclusions made at Asilomar (1975). This was a point in time where stakes were high for the future of biotechnology. The scientists at the meeting were tasked to decide standards and best practices in four days, or else the U.S. government would author guidelines for them. A listener asked Emma about the Asilomar moratorium on certain uses of recombinant DNA, “Did anyone follow it?” Emma replied that initially most or all scientists did, but since after a while no recombinant-DNA-based catastrophes happened, the moratorium was not followed as closely. This was an example of proactive self-regulation, which had a positive outcome overall. Furthermore, what resulted was a standard for “under which conditions we may proceed.” Biosafety classifications (e.g., low, moderate, high risk) and NIH-developed guidelines that still persist today originated from the discussion at Asilomar.

Some of the same scientists who were key players at the 1975 Asilomar meeting are currently calling for a similar discussion about human germline editing. Today, biotechnology is emerging in a much different context, and the stakeholders have changed significantly. In 1975, the decision makers were principle investigators (PIs), mostly male (6/~140 were women), and excluded technicians and graduate students. The Asilomar discussions were explicitly limited to biosafety, lacking any discussion on biosecurity (protection against intentional harm/ terrorism) or ethical issues, which were seen as peripheral. The current challenge is to adapt the conversation and procedures to a modern, more diverse environment.

In addition to diverse scientists, citizens are being invited into the conversation. Citizens ask different questions than scientists typically think of: Who owns the technology? How are they using it? How does it affect my life? For instance, the people who are concerned about GMOs (lack of equity and fairness, as well as specific negative legal impacts on farmers), don’t see any benefit of GMOs for themselves.

A listener proposed that if we produced a good example of CRISPR doing something fantastic in a human embryo, such as curing a life-long genetic disease, then public perception might shift towards pro-genetic engineering. Emma responded ‘how does one decide what a good example is?’ The flagship technology embraced by the scientific community may not necessarily resonate with the public. Although today’s policy and ethics landscape looks different, Asilomar serves as a good example of the efficacy of having difficult conversations around biotechnology and society, demonstrating that while not perfect, the outcomes contribute to progress.


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