US officials list gene editing as possible weapon of mass destruction

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Monday, May 2, 2016
I-TEAM: US officials list gene editing as possible weapon of mass destruction
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Gene editing has been listed by U.S. Intelligence as a possible "weapon of mass destruction."

SAN FRANCISCO -- A breakthrough from the biotech world has shown promise for curing deadly diseases, but now gene editing is listed by U.S. Intelligence as a possible "weapon of mass destruction."

This technology shows so much promise, but in this uncertain world, top U.S. officials are concerned about terrorists using it to find some new way to attack.

For the first time ever, Director of National Security James Clapper lists genome editing in his 2016 Worldwide Threat Assessment as a "Weapon of Mass Destruction and Proliferation".

Every year Clapper reports to Congress on the latest threats to our national security. In his testimony before the U.S. Senate Armed Services Committee on February 9, 2016, Clapper said: "In my 55 years plus in the intelligence business, I don't recall a more diverse array of challenges and crises that we confront as we do today."

Among weapons of mass destruction, he lists North Korea's nuclear weapons and missile programs, chemical weapons in Syria and Iraq and, for the first time ever, genome editing.

Clapper testified, "in countries with different regulatory or ethical standards, (it) increases the risk of the creation of potentially harmful biological agents."

"The genie is out of the bottle if you're going to try and contain this sort of thing," Global Subjects Matter Expert Dr. Gregory Alberts said.

Gene editing was a big topic at a Moscone Center convention in March, with 3,000 molecular medicine scientists.

"They could create all sorts of things, diseases that we can't block, and take something that is already bad and make it even worse," Alberts said.

The scientists worry about terrorists enhancing the already deadly smallpox or anthrax, or creating new biohazards.

What makes gene editing possible? A revolutionary tool called CRISPR that lets scientists cut DNA strands quickly and effectively.

"I think it's right that people are concerned about this," Stanford University's Dr. Matthew Porteus said.

Porteus believes he'll be able to cure hemophilia in three to five years through gene editing, but he worries about those who would use the technology for evil.

"Could one use the technology to generate some super infectious bacteria that would infect, you'd use as some sort of bioterror," Porteus said.

Scientists in China edited goat genes to produce long hair, more meat and more muscle. They used CRISPR to develop these beagles with six times the muscle mass of normal dogs. They have also modified human genes in a non-viable embryo.

Dan Noyes: "Is it too far to imagine that next step where they develop a human with 10 times the muscle mass of the normal human?"

Dr. Barbara Koenig: "We don't have enough wisdom to make those kinds of selections about how best to improve the human species."

UCSF Bioethics Professor Barbara Koenig told the I-Team that the international scientific community has placed a moratorium on experimenting with gene editing on human embryos.

Koenig: "Those individuals who don't follow the rules would essentially be ostracized. But I understand how you could be concerned that self-regulation is enough."

Noyes: "How long before someone uses this for something bad?"

Koenig: "That's a very hard question."

They would need millions of dollars, advanced scientific knowledge and dangerous pathogens to use CRISPR for bad.

One Bay Area man is promoting the positive aspects of CRISPR.

"Just think of it like a turkey baster, right?" former NASA research fellow Josiah Zayner said.

Zayner held a seminar in Oakland last month, saying he wants to "democratize science." He's selling do-it-yourself CRISPR kits on Indiegogo.

It costs $75 to make "light controlled bacteria," all the way up to the $5,000 kit to create your own organism. So far, he's sold almost $70,000 worth of CRISPR technology.

Experts aren't concerned about those basic experiments, but more advanced projects on the state-sponsored level.

Let's hope U.S. Intelligence is good enough to catch those who might use CRISPR for evil before they take action.