New book chapter on law/bioethics of somatic cell genome editing (and sickle-cell diseases)

After a long journey that should have been no surprise whatsoever (not when one looks at the scale and size of this volume), a book chapter I authored with Emeritus Distinguished Prof Dianne Nicol from the University of Tasmania’s Centre for Law and Genetics, way back in 2021, has now been published.

The chapter deals with the bioethics of somatic cell genome editing, which, so it is said — and as the literature mostly suggests — does not raise many ethical issues at all. But that, of course, is not quite right. ‘SCGE’ — like all cellular therapies — presents an array of bioethical and biopolitical challenges to patients, including those related to safety and accessibility.

This is not least because those treatments that are now emerging, the frontrunner among which is exa-cel (previously CTX-001), are designed to treat hemoglobinopathies — that is, blood diseases — that disproportionately impact people in sub-Saharan Africa. And it appears they will be prohibitively expensive.

Additionally, the treatment of these disorders may have impacts beyond our current predictions. After all, the sickle-shaped red blood cells (RBCs) that this treatment will treat and resolve have also been identified as providing protection against malaria. That’s because haem — a component of haemoglobin — was found to confer advantage in experimental studies.

In essence, haem, which is present in a free form in the RBCs of mice with the sickle cell trait, but mostly absent from mice without the trait, seems to protect against malaria. When mice without sickle cells were injected with haem, and then later infected with malaria, it was found that the injected haem helped to guard against malaria in those previously normal — and malaria-unprotected — mice. It follows, as the authors note, that ‘Sickle human hemoglobin (Hb) confers a survival advantage to individuals living in endemic areas of malaria, the disease caused by Plasmodium infection.’ The question, then, is whether this conferred advantage will change at all among those who are treated for sickle-cell diseases, such as beta thalassemia, with exa-cel. I should note, however, this is not a question explicitly addressed in the chapter.

Instead, our chapter deals with the technical history of somatic cell genome editing, and the way in which this form of genome editing is different to heritable genome editing. SCGE is not heritable because it is performed on post-natal humans whose gametes (reproductive cells) have fully materialised and developed. Once the gametes have developed, they maintain their genomic content for life (as far as we know). By contrast, genome editing prior to fertilisation (ie, genome editing performed on IVF or ART embryonic cells prior to their being fertilised) is heritable, and will carry over to the future generations.

Although the science of SCGE might sound relatively boring when compared to heritable human genome editing, it really is not. For a start, SCGE is happening right now. It could be decades — perhaps centuries — before we start editing pre-fertilised human embryos using CRISPR Cas-9. But we are using the same technology — CRISPR Cas-9 endonucleases — on adult stem cells today. Speaking generally of SCGE (and not specifically about exa-cel), the process is essentially this:

  • cells are removed from the adult patient’s body;
  • the patient undergoes ablative therapy to kill all pathogenic/diseased cells (eg, the sickle RBCs) in their body (and clearly they are in a very serious condition at this time);
  • the patient’s removed cells are shipped off to a laboratory, where they are subjected to the action of the endonuclease (the CRISPR) through flow electroporation or a similar technique (which enables the CRISPR to work by manipulating the materials at a nuclear level);
  • the resulting ‘product’ of the ‘manufacturing’ process is the therapeutic good (ie, exa-cel)
  • the CRISPR-Cas is essentially a cutting and repair tool that cuts and then repairs double-strand breaks in human DNA (changing the nucleotides as it repairs them);
  • the repairs created by the CRISPR-Cas are ‘guided’ or played out on a ‘template’; and
  • the edited cells, which are not affected by disease (because they have been edited) are then reinfused into the body, and replace the cells that existed previously

There is much more to say about SCGE, but that is all in the chapter. I also wrote about it earlier this year, on this website, here.

But it’s great to have the book chapter finally out there. I attach a few images of the contents pages to illustrate the huge scope of the volume — which is one of two. The book’s full title is the Handbook of Bioethical Decisions, Volume I: Decisions at the Bench. It is edited by Erick Valdés and Juan Alberto Lecaros, whom I thank for including our chapter; and it is published by Springer.