If Einstein created a monster by showing how to split the atom, will we regret unleashing CRISPR?
One of my students came to me completely freaked out one day. We were at the brainstorming stage of ProjectMERIT and she was looking to do a project that could possibly save the world --- from human destruction. She had just learned about CRISPR, a gene-editing technology that may revolutionize medicine, healthcare, food production and more. So why was she freaking out? She is smart enough to know that just because we now have the ability to split our DNA, splice it, and edit it in a multitude of ways, doesn’t mean that people will do only good things with this technology. She’s 16 years old and she figured this out on her own.
Remember one of Albert Einstein’s biggest regrets after he discovered how to split the atom? Einstein said, “I’ve created a MONSTER!” Just because you can do something doesn’t mean that you should. And therein lies the ethical dilemma with CRISPR. It is relatively easy to use and is inexpensive because experiments can be done much quicker than with other technology.
Today, universities across the globe have CRISPR and there is an “unwritten agreement” in the academic world that it will be used in positive ways (curing disease, reducing pests) and will not be used to do unethical things (cloning humans).
But not all scientists and people share the same ethical protocol that colleges do. In 2015, Chinese scientists claimed to have edited human genes using CRISPR to develop treatment for incurable diseases. Now, the world is worried that China may be trying to clone humans.
While it’s exciting to see the possibilities for curing disease, I agree with my 16-year old student that controlling how CRISPR is used will be difficult to do. Like Einstein’s regret, I wonder what the real stakes in gene editing are going to be once CRISPR is available to everyone.