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Duke Medical Ethics Journal

Redefining ownership: barriers to Ad-lib CRISPR

By Xander Nelson
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Digital biotechnology has revolutionized twenty-first-century medicine. Previous research limitations, such as analyzing genetic code, have become trivial lab exercises. For example, sequencing the human genome in the early 2000s would cost a researcher upwards of ten million dollars, a task that can be completed today for under $500. [4] A primary driver of recent biological inquiry was the advent of CRISPR technology in 2012. CRISPR-Cas (Clustered, regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats-CRISPR associated) is a customizable protein complex originally found in bacterial immune systems used to make specific cuts in DNA. [3, 5] In nature, this system allows bacteria to identify and degrade harmful phages (in essence, a bacteria-infecting virus) before they cause damage to the organism. Bacteria accomplish this by “reading” the phage DNA sequence, making a small “probe” that uniquely binds to the foreign DNA, and then cutting the DNA strand using a protein. [5] In the lab, this technology has become equally powerful. Scientists have isolated this CRISPR system and constructed it in numerous cell lines and organisms, using computation to identify gene target probe sequences.


Digital solutions, specifically involving artificial intelligence, are “poised to extend this gene-editing technology’s utility by predicting repair and post-transplantation outcomes.” [3] CRISPR has already proven invaluable in identifying and treating previously unsolvable genetic disorders. With rapidly advancing technologies, ad-lib CRISPR applications beyond medicine appear to be on the horizon. To preserve people’s individuality, cosmetic genetic treatments should be avoided. Throughout this discussion, we emphasize how biological identity underpins our ability to express our experiences and claim ownership of tangible property. In effect, elective CRISPR therapies brand people with patented technology, compromising all three of these aspects of humanity. While medical applications of CRISPR bolster humanity, elective cosmetic CRISPR treatments jeopardize biological identity. 


For people to express their experiential and intellectual identity, societies require strong scaffolding. Numerous philosophies, including Hobbes’ Leviathan and Rousseau’s Social Contract, have established a need for some form of governance to facilitate healthy community interactions, the scaffolding of society. At their core, these ideas rest on the enforcement of citizen rights and how to manage those who break community contracts. [2] Upholding laws necessitates the ability to identify citizens. To accomplish this, we must extend our definition of individuality beyond cultural identity. Biological markers are a critical aspect of identity. From signatures to fingerprints to facial recognition, contracts are upheld by the ability to biologically identify ourselves. Ultimately, biological identity originates from the genetic code. Human genetics are responsible for making people biologically distinct. Of course, as a reminder, genetic identity is one of many characteristics that make people unique. Free citizens make infinite decisions that impact how they distinguish themselves, compiling a lifetime of intellectual and experiential identity.  However, from a governance perspective, modifying biological identity wields power that people may feel uncomfortable subjecting themselves to. Indeed, biology is often used to validate our membership in society.  Changes made to a person’s genetics affect not only their immediate appearance but also their inheritable biological information. For better or worse, the children following that person will be affected by that choice. These genetic changes will forever be linked to a company, a product, and a patent. In effect, using elective CRISPR therapies places a metaphorical copyright sign in the middle of a person’s fingerprint.

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To emphasize the importance of preserving the identity of people, we turn briefly to historical philosophy. Ownership of our identity, both experientially and intellectually, underpins a vast array of social values, from the university to the workforce. As a result, intellectual authenticity has become a platonic ideal: adolescents spend many of their waking hours determining how to distinguish themselves. By pursuing this goal, everyone inadvertently becomes a social scientist. Each of us actively identifies community needs and determines ways to satisfy them. And each person contributes differently. Traditional Kantian philosophy suggests that the physical world exists outside of the subject and that the way humans perceive reality is necessarily subjective. [1] Centuries of neuroscience have confirmed this theory. The human mind processes exposure to the world by interpreting sensory information. Complex networks in the hippocampus allow people to process, store, and recover past experiences through encoding sequential patterns associated with events. [1] According to Kant, subjectivity is a natural outcome of different perspectives stemming from the fact that each person processes events differently. Empirically, gathering minds with varied experiences produces a more sophisticated community. While existing in a community, people must maintain the ability to claim ownership of physical and intellectual property. Classically, private property is generated when individuals invest work in commonly held materials. [6] Once this property is created, the ability to claim ownership of property is an essential aspect of human identity. This is reflected intellectually in the ability to claim patents and copyrights on our unique contributions to society. From this brief discussion, a conceptual complication immediately arises involving elective CRISPR treatments. By participating in these treatments, the intellectual property of the CRISPR therapy becomes a defining aspect of the person. The foreign genetic information and technologies become intrinsically assimilated into the person’s biological identity. For some people, ingraining someone else’s intellectual property into their genetic code may pose a serious ethical dilemma. 


In conclusion, first, this essay supports the research of targeted CRISPR-based treatments for life-threatening diseases. For many genetically heritable illnesses, CRISPR offers the most promising, long-lasting approach. However, performing elective CRISPR therapies poses significant ethical complications. Elective CRISPR therapies alter the genetic code responsible for biological identity. In addition, the success of current CRISPR therapies is not guaranteed. Off-target CRISPR-enzyme binding can cause significant mutations, in some cases deleting entire chromosomes. [7] Conducting potentially hazardous procedures on healthy individuals for cosmetics only should be considered carefully.

Review Editor: Alexander Adams
Design Editor: Heiley Tai
  1. Behrendt, R. P. (2010). Contribution of hippocampal region CA3 to consciousness and schizophrenic hallucinations. Neuroscience & Biobehavioral Reviews, 34(8), 1121–1136.

  2. Brettschneider, C. (2011). Rights within the Social Contract: Rousseau on Punishment. In A. Sarat, L. Douglas, & M. M. Umphrey (Eds.), Law as Punishment / Law as Regulation (p. 0). Stanford University Press.

  3. Corridon, P. R., Wang, X., Shakeel, A., & Chan, V. (2022). Digital Technologies: Advancing Individualized Treatments through Gene and Cell Therapies, Pharmacogenetics, and Disease Detection and Diagnostics. Biomedicines, 10(10), 2445.

  4. Cost of sequencing a full human genome. Our World in Data. (n.d.). 

  5. Liu, T. Y., & Doudna, J. A. (2020). Chemistry of Class 1 CRISPR-Cas effectors: Binding, editing, and regulation. Journal of Biological Chemistry, 295(42), 14473–14487.

  6. Moulds, H. (1964). Private Property in John Locke’s State of Nature. The American Journal of Economics and Sociology, 23(2), 179–188.

  7. Wu, K. J. (2020, October 31). CRISPR gene editing can cause unwanted changes in human embryos, study finds. The New York Times. 

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