North Carolina Law Review

University of North Carolina School of Law

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EDITING HUMANITY: ON THE PRECISE MANIPULATION OF DNA IN HUMAN EMBRYOS

July 4, 2019

97 N.C. L. REV. 1147 (2019)

 

Genetically modified humans are among us. Emerging technologies for genome editing have launched humanity into the uncharted territory of modifying the human germline—namely, the reproductive cells and embryos that carry our genetic ancestry. Reports of the first live births of humans with edited genomes in China recently confirmed that the power to manipulate our genes at an embryonic stage is no longer theoretical. In the wake of enormous scientific progress, questions regarding how the law will treat this technological breakthrough abound.

 

This Article examines the legality of human genome editing, specifically germline genome editing (“GGE”), from administrative and constitutional law perspectives. It argues that the Food and Drug Administration’s (“FDA” or “Agency”) forbearance in claiming jurisdiction over GGE is creating a perilous void for an emerging field of law. At the same time, the contemporary de facto legislative ban on GGE clinical applications, which categorically prohibits the Agency from evaluating the safety and efficacy of any investigational new drug or biological product application derived from the technology, is unnecessary and creates more societal costs than benefits. On a broad scale, the ban embodies poor public policy because it prevents the FDA from exercising jurisdiction over matters that constitute extensions of the Agency’s traditional regulatory scope. An analysis of the law reveals salient regulatory gaps that could be viewed as rendering some types of GGE beyond the FDA’s regulatory reach. Notwithstanding those gaps, this Article argues that the FDA can work within the existing statutory framework to cure regulatory deficits and promulgate rules to regulate the technology and, thus, urges the FDA to exercise that jurisdiction. This Article ultimately demonstrates how law and policy converge into a proposed new regulatory paradigm for human GGE that flows from the D.C. Circuit’s ruling in United States v. Regenerative Sciences, LLC, which held that specific stem cell mixtures can be regulated as drugs or biological products within the meaning of the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act and the Public Health Service Act.

 

This Article further contends that efforts to ban GGE technologies cannot withstand constitutional scrutiny in the long run because they impinge on a cognizable fundamental right that protects select uses of GGE. This fundamental right flows from jurisprudence in the areas of procreative, parental, and—to some extent—privacy rights, but it is not absolute. The Article presents an interpretive model for this body of jurisprudence in the GGE context, which promotes extrapolation of applicable legal principles that can guide and promote coherent public policy. Launching from this jurisprudential departing point, this Article introduces a novel legal- and science-based normative framework to delineate primary limits for a right to perform GGE based upon four distinct categories: (1) therapeutic uses to remedy disease; (2) prophylactic purposes, which may or may not be therapeutic; (3) cosmetic or enhancement purposes; and (4) uses involving modification of traits that raise concerns of discrimination already prohibited by the law. This conceptual and structural approach outlines a legal blueprint for GGE clinical interventions, but more importantly it circumvents problems that dominate the existing literature, which arise from the conventional tendency to group GGE applications into therapeutic uses on one hand, and enhancements on the other.

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