Posted on January 16, 2020 at 10:23 PM
The title does not mean societal or legal control of gene
editing technology. Rather, it speaks of
controlling, or shutting off, a specific gene editing process. In retrospect, it had to be the case that
there is a resistance, or control, mechanism for the CRISPR system, the gene-editing
machinery that functions as a way for bacteria to resist invasion by
viruses. An engaging essay in Nature
this week discusses
this on a level accessible to one who, like me, is not a technical
specialist in the field. Briefly, a few
years ago a grad student at UC/San Francisco discovered cases in which the
CRISPR system was ineffective in certain bacteria. Following up led to the discovery of some 50
proteins that can act as “kill switches” for CRISPR.
On a surface level, the implications are clear—learn how to
deploy these proteins and one can monitor one’s gene editing efforts for
unwanted effects, or for spinning out of control, and if things haven’t gotten too
far out of hand, one could turn things off—have an antidote, as it were.
Suppose at some future date that someone were being treated
with a gene editing approach for a genetic disease, and things start happening
suggesting that other genes than were intended to be the target were being
altered. Presumably one could intervene
to treat or prevent the consequences. Or
suppose that genes were being edited to control a certain pest, like
malaria-causing mosquitoes. Presumably
there could be an intervention to try to stop the process.
That’s a pretty superficial discussion, but technical
experts in the field are trying to learn how to use these “kill
switches” to control their gene-editing efforts.
The also-superficial implication seems clear: these efforts
should be understood, and applied in laboratory systems, then perhaps in “somatic”
gene editing (treating an existing person for a genetic disease) BEFORE attempts
are made to edit human embryos, whether the embryos are intended for gestation
or birth or not. Until things are MUCH more
fully understood, there should be no direct work on heritable genome editing.