John Oliver explains why gene editing is serious business


On Last Week Tonight, John Oliver dips into the science of gene editing and the powerful CRISPR. It’s more vital to everyday life than you might think

This week, on Last Week Tonight, it’s all about science. Or, in the words of host John Oliver, “math disguised as dinosaurs and outer space to seem interesting”.

That’s a bit of a false lead, though, as we’re actually talking about the far more specific topic of gene editing. You know, like you’ve seen in the previews for Rampage, the Dwayne Johnson film experience about, uh, really big animals? There is some sort of gorilla involved. Also, a 30-foot wolf, for some reason. Somehow, in that world, scientists mucking about in animals’ genes have managed to produce some weird animals to face off against or team up with The Rock.

Gene editing is pretty routinely referenced in media today, but do we fully understand what it means? Is it all “designer babies” and glowing kittens? Are commentators worrying about eugenics justified or alarmist fools?

First of all, gene editing isn’t actually new. As a class of scientific work, some form of gene editing has been around since at least the 1970s.

What is new is CRISPR. This cutting-edge method is a way in which scientists can essentially clip out bits of DNA and paste in new sequences of genetic code.

Why CRISPR matters

An early version of CRISPR was first described by Yoshizumi Ishino at Osaka University in 1987. In 2012, scientists Jennifer Doudna and Emmanuelle Charpentier were the first to propose that CRISPR could be used in purposeful gene editing. Their discovery essentially led to a revolution in biology and genetics.

CRISPR is part of a huge shift in medicine, promising new treatments and even cures for cancers, genetic disorders, and other diseases. CRISPR is also heinously difficult and complicated to undertake. Human trials using this technique haven’t officially happened yet. Indeed, they are not likely to happen for quite some time. Many scientists and medical doctors are very cautious about the consequences of altering someone’s genetic code, be it for an individual, that person’s children, or their environment.

Right now, applications have been restricted to plant and animal testing. That includes, for some reason, an experiment that produced the most ripped beagles in all of recorded history.

We have to understand that this is a slow, precise process that requires careful thought and technique, said Oliver. It’s not as simple as, say, bringing back a woolly mammoth with little more than a casual snap of the fingers. Neither should it be something that just anyone can take on as a lark.

The other side of CRISPR

Yet, CRISPR is cheap and widely available. This is great from a scientific perspective, removing one major hurdle from making serious medical and genetic advancements. That also means that “biohackers” can sell you a CRISPR kit to do unregulated experiments in your garage.

Selling chemistry kits isn’t such a bad thing, but trying to bypass the rigors of scientific practice is. Perhaps genetic engineering should be difficult. Maybe we shouldn’t be looking for shortcuts when it comes to messing with our own DNA. It’s not that we’re going to turn Jeff Goldblum into a man-fly hybrid. It’s just that predicting the consequences of gene editing in human trials is devilishly hard.

This kind of ill-considered rushing might also set the precedent for careless human applications. Oliver referenced gene therapy in the case of Jesse Gelsinger, the first known person to have died in a gene therapy trial.

After doctors injected Gelsinger with a viral vector meant to correct genetic liver disease, he suffered what appeared to be a massive immune response to the vector. That response then led to organ failure and brain death, only four days after the injection. It also set back the field of gene therapy by years, if not decades.

Different kinds of cells

There is also the matter of somatic versus germline mutations. Somatic cells are temporary. That is, your somatic cells die when you die, and that’s that. Germline cells, meanwhile, are ones that can be passed on to your descendants.

Gene editing that targets germline cell gets fraught, and quickly. It’s very difficult, if not entirely impossible, to predict the kinds of genetic and environmental consequences that result from mucking about in a bunch of DNA. And what are the ethical consequences of making gene changes that will be passed on to future generations? Are we really qualified to make decisions on what is good enough to pass on and what will go into the CRISPR garbage can?

Take, for instance, efforts to prevent the spread of Lyme disease. Scientists have considered genetically altering mice to be resistant to Lyme-infected tick bites. Kevin Esvelt, one of the scientists in question, has carefully considered how to test this kind of germline editing in a small mouse population. But he’s also aware that, even with precise consideration, there’s always something that can go off the rails.

While we’re at it, we might as well talk about those so-called “designer babies”. This hypothetical concept envisions a future where potential parents can clip away at their genes and produce a perfect baby.

Ethical quandaries

Except, what’s “perfect”? What is a “problem”? For example, some people might want to go all CRISPR-happy on a gene that causes deafness. However, people in the Deaf community generally do not see themselves as “mistakes” or “problems” to be solved. Many would argue that they are different from the standard, but no less valuable for their deafness. The same can be said for a number of other variations on the human genome that produce other variations, such as autism or dwarfism.

Germline editing for human babies is pretty far off. Still, for a peek into the future, we should look to Chinese gene research. There, ethics concerns are less strenuously considered than in Western labs.

All of this isn’t meant to instill fear. Instead, it’s to underline how much we need high standards and careful consideration of the consequences of gene editing. Tools such as CRISPR have the potential to make a huge difference in the future of our species — it is pretty hard to argue in favor of a debilitating condition like sickle cell anemia, after all.

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Yet, in the wrong hands, it could also lead to unintended consequences in terms of environment, evolution, and individual lives like those of Jesse Gelsinger. There’s nothing wrong with feeling excitement over the possibility of tools like CRISPR. At the same time, we must exercise both caution and patience in order to wield these tools responsibly.