The CRISPR-Cas9 Tool of Gene Editing: Cheaper,
Barry R. Furrow*
I will focus on whether the CRISPR technique could potentially generate
risky genome edits that could, intentionally or unexpectedly, have negative
effects on human health, genetic traits, and even disrupt entire ecosystems.
Researchers note that the technology is easily accessible, the equipment is
relatively cheap, and not much training is required.
1 While CRISPR may
well prove safe with further understanding of its operation, regulators must
worry about unexpected risks and side effects, along with abuses by private
parties and governments less careful about research technique and ethical
limits on research.
Genetic research risks are special.
2 Unlike environment harms that usually
produce a by-product causing long term health effects, harms associated with
genetic research present uncertainty about possible catastrophes.
3 As I have
previously argued, “[t]he problem of uncertainty is intensified because of the
possibility that research into fundamental biological or physical structures
may alter those structures in a way that does not normally occur in the natural
Some excellent work has already been done in laying out principles to
balance the benefits of CRISPR against possible risks, including summits and
National Institutes of Science/Engineering/Medicine reports.
5 We have
visited this terrain before in the 1970s and 1980s with the rDNA controversy,
where regulatory structures were created and then diminished over time. For
some of the worries created by CRISPR, regulation is available in a
* Professor of Law and Director, the Health Law Program, Kline School of Law @
Drexel University, Philadelphia, Pa. I want to acknowledge the Fellowship
provided by the Brocher Foundation in Geneva, Switzerland, which allowed me to
work with a range of ethicists and scientists on topics such as CRISPR.
1. Heidi Ledford, CRISPR, The Disruptor, 522 NATURE 20, 21 (2015).
2. See Barry R. Furrow, Governing Science: Public Risks and Private Remedies, 131 U.
PA. L. REV. 1403, 1404 (1983) (arguing that the risks of genetic research are in a special
5. See, e.g. David Baltimore et al.,
A Prudent Path Forward for Genomic Engineering
and Germline Gene Modification, 348 SCI. 36, 36 (2015).