November 13, 2017 by Speakers' Spotlight
We Can Now Hack Our Own DNA. Should We?
In his latest post for CBC’s Quirks and Quarks, Science Journalist Bob McDonald ventures into the world of CRISPR kits—now available to the general public—meaning we have the ability to hack our own DNA; becoming something you can play with in the comfort of your own home.
With biohackers entering into the space traditionally held by scientists and clinicians, it begs questions. Professor Timothy Caulfield, a Canada Research Chair in Health, Law, and Policy at the University of Alberta, says when he hears of somebody giving themselves biohacked gene therapy, he wonders, “Is this legal? Is this safe? And if it’s not safe, is there anything that we can do about regulating it? And to be honest with you that’s a tough question and I think it’s an open question.”
In Canada, Prof. Caulfield says, Health Canada focuses on products. “You have to have something that you are going to regulate or you have to have something that’s making health claims. So if there is a product that is saying I can cure X, Y, or Z, Health Canada can say, ‘Well let’s make sure the science really backs up that claim.’ The problem with these do-it-yourself approaches is there isn’t really a product. You know these people are experimenting on themselves with something that may or may not be designed for health purposes.” He says, if you could buy a gene therapy kit that was being marketed to you to biohack yourself, that would be different. “Health Canada could jump in. But right here that’s not the case.”
There are places in the world that do regulate biohacking, says Prof. Caulfield. “Germany, for example, they have specific laws for it. And here in Canada we do have a regulatory framework that says that you cannot do gene therapy that will alter the germ line. In other words, you can’t do gene therapy or any kind of genetic editing that will create a change that you will pass on to your offspring. So that would be illegal, but that’s not what’s happening here. And I don’t think there’s a regulatory framework that adequately captures it.”
Infectious disease and policy experts aren’t that concerned yet about the possibility of a biohacker unleashing a genetically modified super germ into the population.
“I think in the future that could be a problem,”says Prof. Caulfield, “but this isn’t something that would be easy to do in your garage. I think it’s complicated science. But having said that, the science is moving quickly. We need to think about how we are going to control the potential harms.”