Public policy and biotechnology

By Leif Olson

October 2019

Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats, better known as its acronym CRISPR, is a new biotechnology at the cutting edge of a revolution in genetics. . The  technique allows geneticists to cut out specific parts of the genome within living cells. The technology originated from a natural process in which bacteria combat viruses by “remembering” them via a strand of DNA. This “DNA array” can be referenced later by proteins like Cas-9 (CRISPR associated protein 9). When the same virus attacks again, the bacterium produces an RNA strand, which Cas-9 uses to find the virus and “snip out” that segment out of the virus DNA, disabling the virus and preventing infection.

Geneticists have discovered that this process can be used for genetic modification. In the same way that a bacterium can use Cas-9 to disable attacking viruses, scientists can use the same protein to seek out specific DNA sequences in the constituent cells of living organisms and alter the genetics of that organism with near-perfect specificity.

What does this mean for the future of genetic engineering, specifically in humans? According to Jeffery Kahn, the Robert Henry Levi and Ryda Hecht Levi Professor of Bioethics and Public Policy at the Johns Hopkins Berman Institute of Bioethics, “whatever you can imagine wanting to change you can.” “The limitations are really less about the tools and more about what we know about genetics,” he added. Since the 1970s, geneticists have been using less effective methods to manipulate genetic code. According to Kahn, older tools like “recombinant DNA” were more akin to using “a shotgun” where CRISPR is “a much more targeted approach.”

Kahn believes that CRISPR will be used for simple modifications at first. Since it cuts a specific part of the genome, he said, “the most obvious place to go are single-gene mutations that cause disease,” where “there is a known mutation and if you inherit the gene, you get the disease.” CRISPR will be especially useful to those who suffer from diseases like Huntington’s, where a single segment of the DNA can be removed to remove the disease from the subject.

But what happens as we get better at manipulating genetic code? CRISPR makes genetic modification extremely easy. This new tool opens possibilities for riskier alterations for a wider range of society as it is relatively cheap and easy to use. Expressing concern at this prospect, Kahn said that “many more people are able to use CRISPR, which means we have a governance challenge… How do we control the uses of these new technologies? This is actually, in my opinion, the biggest issue.”

When asked what SAIS students should know about this technology from a public policy perspective, Kahn said, “Well one, it’s a really interesting area for thinking about what the regulatory environment ought to look like.” Continuing, he said, “there really isn’t a good framework for governance of this or other similar technologies on an international scale.” The regulations at the domestic level in the United States are lacking. According to Kahn, they are “dictated by government funding,” meaning that anyone with sufficient capital is only regulated at the state level and not at all by the federal government.

Further, there appears to be a governance gap at the international level as well. Kahn said, “There is no body for the international governance of emerging biotechnology,” even though “these issues have serious foreign policy implications.”

SAIS students and faculty might benefit from focusing on this issue. Kahn said, “Of course SAIS should be working on this—it’s a perfect example of how SAIS and other Johns Hopkins schools can work together.” Johns Hopkins is in a unique place to research this issue as it has access to institutions like the Bloomberg School of Public Health and the Bergman Institute.

Indeed, if SAIS wishes to remain on the cutting edge of foreign policy, it might consider focusing on emerging biotechnologies. CRISPR and the biotechnologies which rise in its wake will fundamentally alter the international landscape. Without detailed analysis, this rising issue could take the international community by surprise. SAIS has an excellent opportunity to position itself as one of the first international relations schools to address international policy on biotechnology and help fill the international governance gap.