A type of biotechnology aimed at helping eliminate disease in the future also has been flagged as one of the top threats to national security.

On Tuesday, U.S. director of national intelligence James Clapper cited gene editing, a process designed to alter the DNA of living things, as one of seven threats posed by weapons of mass destruction, MIT Technology Review reports. The list is included in the intelligence agency's annual worldwide threat assessment report, which also mentions threats like chemical weapons in Syria and Russian cruise missiles.

"Research in genome editing conducted by countries with different regulatory or ethical standards than those of Western countries probably increases the risk of the creation of potentially harmful biological agents or products," the report says. 

The most widely practiced form of genetic editing, called CRISPR, is a technique that scientists are already using to modify a select number of plants and animals. The practice involves editing out or replacing gene mutations that cause disease and is expected to be used as a form of gene therapy that could one day help treat chronic illness, Wired reports. 

Biotech companies that are experimenting with CRISPR technology include Crispr Therapeutics, Caribou Biosciences, and Editas Medicine, which was founded in 2013 and has backing from Bill Gates and Google Ventures. Last Wednesday, Editas went public on the NASDAQ exchange. Despite this, however, there's no telling whether the company will be able to develop drugs that establish it as a pioneer in the biotech world. "There's a graveyard full of gene-editing biotech companies that have gone public that are no longer with us," NYU law professor Jacob Sherkow told Wired. Editas isn't expected to begin clinical trials for another few years.

Still, technology has already advanced to the point where doctors can determine a lot of genetic characteristics of a fetus as young as just six weeks old, including predispositions to illnesses like alcoholism. Thus, gene editing raises serious ethical questions for the way it could also be used to install specific genes in embryos that protect against things like infection or diseases like Alzheimer's. Given the chance to engineer so-called "designer babies," where humans can even choose details like blond hair and blue eyes, "everyone would want the perfect child," Merle Berger, founder of fertility clinic network Boston IVF, told Technology Review.

Berger isn't alone in her concerns. "Armed with that info very early in a pregnancy, people are going to be making choices on whether they bring that baby to term or not," Alec Ross, former senior adviser on innovation to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, recently told Inc. "We're going to get a lot of information and what we do with this info is going to test our humanity."

 

Published on: Feb 10, 2016