CRISPR-Cas9 and the Non-Germline Non-Controversy


  • Sarah Polcz
  • Anna Lewis
Publish Date:
June 11, 2016
Publication Title:
Journal of Law and the Biosciences
Journal Article
  • Sarah Polcz & Anna Lewis, CRISPR-Cas9 and the Non-Germline Non-Controversy, 3 Journal of Law and the Biosciences 1 (2016).


CRISPR-Cas9 is a new technology for genome editing that is proving revolutionary due to its effectiveness and low cost. An international debate has developed calling attention to the need for urgent policy development to address the use of CRISPR-Cas9 in humans. The debate has focused almost entirely on the modification of human germline cells, that is, changes that have the potential to be inherited by the next generation. In contrast, non-germline (“somatic”) applications of CRISPR-Cas9 have not received much attention, on the basis that genetic changes made just affect an individual patient’s own cells. We argue, via three examples, that the debate overlooks significant policy issues unique to the somatic case. In particular, the fact that even if genetic changes are not passed on to children of the modified individual, there may nonetheless be broader social ramifications. First, we discuss the criminal justice system and near term feasibility of treatment to protect against aggressive behavior. Even if the criminal justice system is reluctant to adopt such interventions, their mere existence would raise novel questions in criminal law. Second, we discuss the implications for disability law of CRISPR-Cas9 “cures” for conditions which have historically been regarded as immutable. If individuals with disabilities who are candidates for new treatments choose not to use CRISPR-Cas9 therapy to remedy their disabilities, they may nevertheless find that their entitlements at law to costly accommodations are affected by the mere availability of this treatment. Our third example uses modification in sports to show that mutable genetics means we can make decisions about our genetics designed to match our life interests, but also highlights that somatic modification has most applications during development: this adds urgency to addressing the use of the technology by minors. While all germline applications have in common their heritability, making a one-size-fits-all approach arguably appropriate, somatic applications are diverse and not unified by a common concern that could be the target of sensible regulation. Moreover, germline modification is banned in many countries, while somatic modification is not. This fact, combined with the huge potential clinical benefits of somatic modification suggest that we are likely to see these issues arise in the short term.