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Genetic Editing: Next Decade, or Next Year, or Next Week? February 2, 2019

Posted by Peter Varhol in Technology and Culture.
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Several years ago, I read Michael Crichton’s last published novel before his death.  It’s called Next, and while it’s a rather disjointed set of storylines, the one that resonated with me was one where Frank Burnet showed a remarkable resistance to leukemia, and as a result his cells are sold (without his knowledge or permission) to a commercial biotech company, BioGen.

The initial cells are lost, but BioGen consults lawyers, who advise that under United States law they have the rights to all of Frank’s cell line and thus the right to extract replacement cells, by force if necessary, from Frank or any of his descendants.  He and his family flees an onslaught of BioGen agents who claim the legal right to kidnap them and harvest cells.  Biogen’s lawyers apply for a warrant to arrest Frank’s daughter, on the grounds that she had stolen the company’s property, namely her and her son’s cells.

The conclusion of this novel was the judge’s decision on the validity of their ownership claim, and it went as we as human beings would have hoped.  Specifically, the judge rules in Frank’s daughter’s favor and rejects the precedents as attempts to abolish normal human rights by decree, a violation of the Thirteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution, which forbids slavery.

However, this is fiction, and fact is turning to be a lot messier.

I’m not a geneticist, and I’m certainly not a lawyer, but as I understand it, cell and DNA ownership are still very much an open legal question.  If a biotech company sees a path to a genetic cure for a serious disease in a particular DNA or genetic sequence, I believe it will vie for legal ownership, in the courts, and spend a great deal of money and effort to achieve that ownership.

And let’s add CRISPR (clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats) technologies into the mix, which provide the ability to edit individual DNA sequences in an embryo, perhaps to remove genetic diseases.

Novelist Daniel Suarez, in Change Agent, postulates CRISPR not only as a means of editing out genetic defects, but also incorporating genetic enhancements, such as strength, speed, brains, or athleticism.  In fact, he goes still farther, postulating that genetic editing can also be done on live subjects, to turn them into a completely different person.

My point is that the boundary between fiction and science is here, and we as a society have some big decisions to make.  This article postulates that CRISPR editing will become morally mandatory, and I am hard-pressed to disagree.

At the same time, we must decide who owns the genes, the person or the company doing the editing.  We may find that we are not the masters of our bodies.

As a youth 40+ years ago, I read Huxley, Orwell, Bradbury, and a host of other dystopian novelists, and was somewhat comforted in the gap between the existing fiction and reality.  Today, there seems to be no such gap, and it makes it a lot more difficult reading both fact and fiction.  This world is almost upon us, if it isn’t already.  Are we prepared to make life’s choices in this world?



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