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Disease,“Designer Babies,” De-Extinction: Patti Zettler‘98 Discusses CRISPR Technology and its Ethical Implications

(Courtesy/The Ohio State University)

On May 24-May 25, Patricia J. Zettler ‘98 joined Dr. Lester’s ninth-grade biology classes for Q&A sessions about Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats (CRISPR), a family of gene sequences transforming gene therapy. 

Zettler, who earned a BA and JD from Stanford, pursued law school because of her interest in science regulation. After interning at the Food and Drug Administration, Zettler opted for a public service career.

Zettler has served as an associative chief counsel in the FDA’s Office of the Chief Counsel and is currently an associate professor at The Ohio State University’s Moritz College of Law, specializing in healthcare law.

Over the past few weeks in Dr. Lester’s classes, ninth-graders have been studying DNA, which prompted a discussion on CRISPR. CRISPR/Cas 9, a genome editing system, can remove, add, or alter sections of DNA sequences. This process of genetic modification has become a hot headline in the science world, as it poses groundbreaking solutions in the fields of medicine, agriculture, energy, and beyond. 

Before attending the Q&A session with Zettler, students in Dr. Lester’s class watched the first episode of the Netflix docuseries Unnatural Selection, which discusses gene editing technologies that apply CRISPR. In the series, the class learned about biohackers – people who experiment on their own bodies to enhance cognitive or physical performance. Zettler, in fact, knew some of the biohackers in the documentary from her academic research. 

Zettler was able to shed light on how CRISPR relates to the intersections of science, technology, and policy. She also discussed some of the ethical questions with which experts like herself are grappling. 

Zettler discussed the story of Jackson Kennedy, a child featured in the series who had a rare retinal disease and benefitted from Luxturna. Zettler described that Luxturna, as a gene therapy, went through an approval process, but CRISPR technology, which is involved in gene editing, has raised debates about whether the FDA has the legal authority to regulate biohacking. 

Unlike older technologies that require more sophisticated equipment, CRISPR is cheaper and easier to use in households – even for those without training. As of now, CRISPR is regulated as an animal drug and is going through a similar approval process as gene therapies. 

As Zettler articulated, the human applications of CRISPR technology are promising, yet controversial. 

FDA gene therapies through CRISPR can cure diseases, eliminating the usual costs associated with years of care.

Some students were curious about CRISPR’s implications for enhancement, particularly in sports technology and human embryonic development. According to Zettler, increasing red blood cell production, for example, could increase aerobic performance and give unfair advantages to athletes. 

Zettler also responded to the concern about engineering favorable mutations in embryos and altering germ lines, thereby affecting future generations. Zettler is not particularly concerned about the possibility of so-called “designer babies,” or people expecting to design their babies to be a “WNBA star, for example.” 

In fact, Zettler argues, we already select for certain things. There are concerns about “playing God,” or that CRISPR technology gives people too much power for gene editing, but Zettler demonstrated that such technologies already exist. 

Fertility treatments were met with similar arguments throughout the 1970’s-80’s, and while CRISPR could have enhancement issues, “This isn’t unique to CRISPR, and that is not a new question,” says Zettler. 

“Drugs approved for narcolepsy keep people awake who may not be as focused,” she added. 

Another student asked whether CRISPR could be used to bring animals out of extinction. Zettler replied, “In theory, it is possible.” 

“Jurassic Park is the scary endgame,” she joked. 

Scientists are currently exploring CRISPR’s applications for eight diseases: cancer, blood disorders, blindness, AIDS, cystic fibrosis, muscular dystrophy, Huntington’s disease, and even Covid-19. 

CRISPR could also be applied to combat climate change – by creating more robust crops in unfavorable environments, ending dependence on fertilizers, and engineering plants to fix more carbon. 

“CRISPR may not be that silver bullet, but it has a lot of promise,” Zettler said. 

As CRISPR continues to revolutionize the scientific field, it is becoming increasingly dependent upon those involved in litigation and regulation. CRISPR’s role in possibly directing evolution makes the job of experts like Zettler more crucial and emphasizes the need for biotechnology and policy to be intertwined in the future. 

With that in mind, Dr. Lester and Dr. Bundy plan to team up for a larger seminar with Zettler next year involving students in Honors Biology and Honors U.S. Government, as well as others who are interested. 


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