Biology has emerged as one of the most important technology platforms of the 21st century. With the arrival of the gene-editing technology Crispr, biology will soon converge with everyday medicine, big agriculture, and artificial intelligence to influence the future of all life on our planet. Crispr, which allows scientists to edit precise positions on DNA using a bacterial enzyme, is already transforming cancer treatment, preventing the spread of disease, and solving global famine. Its trajectory necessarily involves government agencies and commissions, our elected officials, and the courts—and none of them are prepared for what’s coming.
This was apparent last July, when I participated in a closed-door meeting coordinated by the State Department and the National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine. In the room were research scientists, government officials and policy wonks with PhDs in the hard sciences, and our task that day was to talk about the future of regulation and oversight, as well as competitiveness in the biosciences and security. It didn’t take long for us to reach a troubling conclusion: The US currently has no coordinated biology strategy. As a result, Crispr, along with other emerging technologies, is developing faster than our government’s ability to address it.
Since that day in July, Americans elected a president whose administration has openly disavowed the scientific method, data-based evidence, and basic research, and a Congress with just one PhD scientist. Now, our current government leaders are running away from the future, rather than planning ahead for it.
I spent the entire meeting sitting next to Feng Zheng, who at that time, along with MIT and the Broad Institute, was fighting Jennifer Doudna and her fellow researchers at UC Berkeley for ownership of Crispr patents. He was affable, interesting, and tight-lipped about the lawsuit.
But the lawsuit—at least the existence of it—should have been part of our conversation, and it should now be on the agenda somewhere within the Trump administration. The government doesn’t have a national biology policy, so a patent war has sealed our fate.
Like many groundbreaking scientific developments, the Crispr breakthrough happened as a result of competition and collaboration between expert teams. In this case, Doudna’s contributions were publicly funded, while Zheng’s were done under the auspices of a private organization. A few months after our meeting, the fate of those patents and of all future Crispr research was decided by a panel of judges at the US Patent and Trademark Office, whose job it is to evaluate new research within the context of past inventions, not to map out scenarios for how a patent decision might affect American business and society. When those judges, who are political appointees, awarded the Broad Institute the patents, the most important one went to Zhang’s for-profit startup Editas Medicine, which now owns the exclusive license for all future human therapeutic uses of Crispr.
Technically, it isn’t the job or requirement of the USPTO to consider the long-ranging downstream effects of Crispr, which gives us the ability to permanently remove or add elements to the human genome. So instead, I’ll ask: What if someone makes a business case against treating certain genetic diseases in poorer populations? Or to allow wealthy Americans augment their babies to be 10 percent smarter? What if a security firm like Blackwater wants to engineer its soldiers to have more muscle mass? This technology could save millions of lives worldwide and help eliminate certain awful diseases, but it could also be used in ways that might make you uncomfortable.
What about the future of your genetic privacy? Scientists need to store vast amounts of data for human genomes, and space may fill up by 2025, according to researchers at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. As the Crispr ecosystem improves, our storage needs will explode along with the computing power and requirements for acquiring, analyzing, encrypting, and safeguarding our genomic data. The Federal Communications Commission eased regulatory requirements on internet privacy rules without thinking through the consequences. What will happen to the privacy of your genome, which will be stored by third parties under terms that are subject to politicking?
Crispr can be used to engineer agricultural products like wheat, rice, and animals to withstand the effects of climate change. Seeds can be engineered to produce far greater yields in tiny spaces, while animals can be edited to create triple their usual muscle mass. This could dramatically change global agricultural trade and cause widespread geopolitical destabilization. Or, with advance planning, this technology could help the US forge new alliances.
How comfortable do you feel knowing that there is no group coordinating a national biology strategy in the US, and that a single for-profit company holds a critical mass of intellectual property rights to the future of genomic editing?
While I admire Zheng’s undeniable smarts and creativity, for-profit companies don’t have a mandate to balance the tension between commercial interests and what’s good for humanity; there is no mechanism to ensure that they’ll put our longer-term best interests first.
Without a plan, the US is left with the existing democratic instruments of change: patents, regulation, legislation, and lawsuits. And society is trusting our lawmakers, political appointees, and agency heads to apply those instruments to biological technologies that could literally change the future of humanity.
The American public doesn’t need the blunt hammer of the patent office, and any sweeping legislation or series of regulations would doom this technology from achieving its potential. Instead, government needs a new, sophisticated toolset to anticipate and confront what’s on the horizon. This is what we ought to do next.
First, government officials must recognize biology as a technology platform—a difficult request to make of this White House and Congress, which often conflate genetics with divinity. Not all scientists are card-carrying atheists. Religion and science can coexist; it is possible to believe both in God and the scientific method. Talking about biology as a technology platform, using a common lexicon, can help move that conversation away from cherished beliefs toward practical applications.
Second, the US needs a dedicated group of nonpartisan scientists, technologists, ethicists, policy experts, and futurists to develop strategic plans on biology, artificial intelligence, and robotics. Part of their mandate must be to educate our elected officials on emerging science and technology. It can be a reboot of the former Office of Technology Assessment, or a new Department of the Future, but the group should form a connective tissue between legislators and the scientific community.
With that group in place, they’d map out ways to resolve the opposing forces of commerce and collaboration in the public interest. A national biology strategy is a start, but it cannot be the end game. Any plan will need to be continually tweaked and updated, because the future responds to every decision made in the present.