Biopharma Opens Pandora’s Box

With genome editing comes great power – and great responsibility.

Throughout history, humans have used storytelling as a way of institutionalizing and passing on social standards, moral codes and cautionary tales.

Ancient civilizations, from Africans to the Greeks, would tell stories of gods and humans facing and overcoming challenges. These yarns about greed and self-aggrandizement – all in service of reaching a fable’s teachable moment – would serve as a listener’s guide to acceptable behavior within the social construct.

One of the most widely known Greek myths is the story of Pandora’s Box. The fable is a meditation on the weakness of human nature. It’s also the origin story for all the illnesses and misfortunes that plague the human race.

In other words, it’s an object lesson on intolerable human behavior: in this case, pride and irrepressible curiosity.

With recent claims that a Chinese scientist used CRISPR technology to “edit” the genomes of two human children, it would appear the biopharma community is having its own Pandora moment.

The box is already open

The news broke, ironically, at a global confab of scientists on the topic of human genetic editing.

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We must engage in a broader, more diverse conversation on the guardrails for genome editing.

This was not the first such gathering. In fact, George Church from Harvard University led previous closed door conversations among the scientific community on the ethical boundaries of CRISPR.

It came as no surprise that He Jiankui’s sudden announcement triggered universal condemnation from the broad scientific community. A steady stream of key scientists and biopharma leaders expressed their disapproval.

In essence, He argued that his actions were inevitable given technological advancements.

In some ways, he has a point. The enabling technologies surrounding sequencing and manipulating a genome are cheap, more precise and consequently, more commoditized than ever (to Church, sequencing is like so 1980s internet).

Sequencing genomes is now taught in primary school (through the Massachusetts Life Sciences Center, we have funded numerous local high schools with sequencing equipment), and the technology is reshaping everything from drug development (a somewhat anticipated use case) to law enforcement (more than a dozen U.S. murder cases were solved in 2018 alone using consumer genomic databases and the practice of long-range familial search).

Genomic manipulation is equally becoming widespread well beyond therapeutic uses, including agriculture, public health (as was the case in gene drive mosquito control) and the growing, strange world of biohacking and attempts to edit one’s own genome.

Indeed, He claimed human genomic manipulation was not, as the story would suggest, the moment Pandora’s Box was opened but rather the most recent evidence the lid was already off.

Fear not

According to the myth, Pandora, upon realizing her mistake, reseals the Box.

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Genome editing carries profound potential, but the slippery slope here warrants attention from us all.

All the illnesses and misfortunes were released into the wild – but she acts quickly enough to save Hope. A Greek scholar I am not, but the moral of this story is if we keep Hope, we can confront any misfortune.

As with Pandora, we have in our possession a gift of tremendous power, beauty and intrigue – the genome – and science has given us the tools to unlock it. As a more modern and spidery comic book myth reminds us: With great power comes great responsibility.

Biopharma will continue to harness genomic editing, in all its forms, for positive therapeutic benefits. In Massachusetts, arguably the birthplace of CRISPR/Cas9 and home to the highest concentration of research institutions, early-stage companies and academic medical centers invested in therapeutic genomic research.

However, it’s my hope that we engage in a broader, more diverse and more accessible conversation on the guardrails for this technology.

Recent events provide us a modern moral: CRISPR and its ilk have profound potential, but the slippery slope here warrants attention from us all.

Travis McCready is President and CEO of the Massachusetts Life Sciences Center, a $1 billion public-private partnership with the mission of advancing the life sciences ecosystem in Massachusetts. He directs and oversees the center’s investment strategy, including the agency’s operations, programs and partnerships.

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