Friday, April 14, 2017

Before Letting the GeNe Out of the Bottle...

Applying the Precautionary Principle to genetically modified organisms (GMOs), we support a moratorium until safety can be demonstrated by independent (non-corporate funded), long-term tests for food safety, genetic drift, resistance, soil health, effects on non-target organisms, and cumulative interactions. - Green Party Platform (Agriculture)
The Green Party would probably like to idle CRISPR until we better understand all of the ramifications of making changes to an organism's DNA, but its inventors have come out with a benign version that can be used just to detect a particular disease. It does this through matching RNA of the virus or other pathogen, typically from a blood, urine, or saliva sample. The fact that the new system, named SHERLOCK, can be impregnated into paper and stored there until needed makes it very cheap to produce by the millions for bedside detection of communicable diseases, cancers, and other urgent conditions. Each unique RNA sequence being checked (Zika virus, for instance) could have a SHERLOCK produced within a few days and it would be 1,000 times more sensitive to detecting the virus than the most common tool now in use (ELISA).
Photo by Ricardo Hurtubia

This looks like a biotech development that should sail through FDA approval and soon be in the hands of clinics worldwide. That will be a huge boon to the Broad Institute of MIT and its spinoffs, giving them and CRISPR great publicity and more of a chance of approval for wider application. Regulators and lawmakers should move quickly to set limits on genetic engineering. The extent to which the food industry has already taken liberties with biological pollution is disconcerting to many and now can be expected to accelerate unless authorities step in.

The Green Party  is calling for a federal Technology Assessment Office to examine how technology fits with life on Earth, with our neighborhoods, and with the quality of our daily lives. There was such an office for a short while until Congress decided they could politic just fine without looking into risks and unintended consequences. SHERLOCK looks like a wonderful tool to prevent diseases from spreading. While celebrating, let's make sure to look hard at CRISPR and other related technologies before we let that surge of optimism carry us away.

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