CRISPR: designing rules to catch-up with science

The birth of Lulu and Nana, if it was what Chinese scientist He Jiankui says it was, opens a new scope of possible futures. Biotechnologies that rely on nucleases, among which CRISPR-Cas9 but also TALE and “Zinc Finger” nucleases, can cut in many turfs. Being able to precisely edit DNA or RNA, the two fundamental blocks of life, changes our relationship to our bodies, care and health.

Such a change will happen in our minds before it is distributed by the State. Not that public policy monks are against biomedical innovation: they often welcome it as a means to battle long-term diseases which disproportionately saddle public finances. Yet few countries allow, let alone foster, human embryo research. Enabling babies to be born free of such disease doesn’t seem to be a major political priority.

Genome editing is not an unidentified political object. Decades of GMO (Genetically Modified Organism, colloquially describing plants who received additional genes through genomics) debate have structured the political fracture on this topic.

GMOs first politicized genome engineering. The traditional breeding techniques, used on both plants and animals, didn’t trigger such debate. Bananas and cattle, among others, underwent a transgenerational selection processes which ended up being far more productive for our species than for theirs (though they did see an exponential rise in absolute value of individuals in a very short time). The biopolitical technologies and infrastructures enabling us to intervene on genes have existed for millennia. What is changing is the level and the scale of the intervention, from selection to precision, from plasmids to nucleases, from corn to sapiens. The technology of government used to manage the biosphere must evolve along with the change.

Chinese ambiguity

Not all countries are equal on that matter. While Europeans have been wary such technologies, China is on the move. It wasn’t always the case. But an important signal was given in 2013 when Xi Jinping, the Chinese president, gave a green light to GMOs while recalling in a speech his own experience of the 1960s famine, which remains a powerful trauma in the RPC’s recent political history. It is said that China would keep in its strategic backup supplies twice the grain kept by other nations (six month’s consumption instead of three).

In 2015, 3.7 million hectares of GMO crops (mostly cotton) were cultivated on Chinese soil. GMO corn, sometimes imported from the US, remains a political issue. The Chinese institutional structure, which relies on a conception of checks and balances different from the Western world and doesn’t make much room for some forms of social dissent, allows for swifter action on matters considered as strategic by the Party.

Making genome editing a human affair might also be made easier by the social culture shaped by previous policies. The now defunct One Child Policy has given the Chinese State a strong foothold in its citizens’ intimacy. What is elsewhere known as “planned parenthood” has become well-establish system designed to invade procreative mechanisms. The scraping of the policy in 2016 didn’t trigger a baby boom: the idea of the “qualitative child”, nurtured by her or his family’s sacrifices to reach the highest educational, health and professional heights, dies hard. In this context, making sure that the future child will have the best possible variants of some targeted genes is just another link in an already existing chain. George Church, a star geneticist, has started exploring which alleles could give an advantage to its bearer (among which CCR5 delta 32, the variant on which Lulu would be homozygote and therefore immune to HIV-1, can be found).

If other nations start implementing such technologies in their family planning strategies, it will be hard for the remaining States not to jump in. Worse, how could we justify not using those technique to parents bearing grave monogenic diseases, while their children could and would be born healthy in other countries?


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