Dr Gaetan Burgio is group leader and Head of the Transgenesis Facility at the John Curtin School of Medical Research. He sat down with Giordano Borzuola to discuss the ethical and social implications of the fascinating new biotechnology, CRISPR.
Clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats (CRISPR), are segments of DNA that contain short repetitions of base sequences. CRISPR associated proteins recognise CRISPR sequences, and can cut these sequences from the genome. This interaction can be used by researchers to ‘genetically engineer’ an organism’s DNA by removing undesired genes and replacing them with others.
When talking about his research, Dr Gaetan Burgio stated that “at this stage, we just want to learn more about how CRISPR works.” Using multidrug resistant bacteria and the malaria parasite, Burgio’s goal is to “uncover novel ways to combat deadly infectious diseases, such as malaria or hospital acquired infections.”
Earlier this year, researchers in China conducted the first attempt to genetically engineer human embryos using CRISPR. Using non-viable embryos, the team used CRISPR to bind and splice target DNA at specific locations to effectively remove a faulty gene, which could then be replaced. Whilst groundbreaking, the experiment was met with limited success. Of the 71 embryos that survived, only 28 were successfully spliced, with only a fraction of those containing the desired replacement genetic material. As noted by the lead researcher Dr Junjiu Huang, “if you want to do it in normal embryos, you need to be close to 100% [success rate]… [the technology] is still too immature.”
When asked about this, Dr Burgio echoed these sentiments in emphasising the need for patience, “there is so much we don’t yet know… I cannot overstate how long it will be before we can use it (CRISPR) in that way.”
Despite the limited success of this initial experiment, it still raises complex ethical issues. Edward Lanphier, chairman of the Alliance for Regenerative Medicine, argues that the work could be exploited for “non-therapeutic” modifications – such as to change a child’s eye colour, or even enhance their athletic or intellectual capabilities. George Church, a geneticist at Harvard Medical School, supports a movement amongst some scientists to create a moratorium on embryo editing until “safety issues are cleared up and there is general consensus that it is OK.”
When asked about this, Dr Burgio disagreed with the need for a moratorium for all CRISPR research, however, supported the notion that the technology should only be used for therapy. Burgio also noted that these issues, while morally contentious, are not pressing. Citing the need for further testing, as well as an almost decade long process to gain safety approval before CRISPR can be used on humans, Burgio argued that “we’re at least 10-20 years away from being able to use CRISPR in [an ethically contentious] way.”
When asked about the best way for lawmakers to attempt to create laws in anticipation of possible ethical issues surround CRISPR, Dr Burgio argued that the law had to adopt a reactionary stance. By the time that law can be created, Burgio argued, the technology will have shifted to render the legislation obsolete. “We need to wait and see what direction the technology moves in before we can look to create policy around it,” he contended.
In the CSIRO Strategy 2020 report, Minister for Industry and Science, The Hon Ian Macfarlane, indicated that modern scientific research should be centred around research that can be commercialised. Macfarlane argued that the CSIRO should look to boost “commercialisation of Australian ideas” by putting “science, research and technology at the centre of Australian Industry.” When asked about the perceived conflict between “blue sky” scientific research and “industry-centric” research, Dr Burgio argued that it was impossible to have the latter without the former. “Ideas that can be commercialised come from blue sky research,” Dr Burgio argued, “penicillin, Wifi, radar are all technologies that came about as a result of research that didn’t have an immediate commercial goal.”