The First US Law Targeting ‘Biohacking’
In June 2019, California passed the first law in the United States targeting ‘biohacking’, the practice of do-it-yourself gene editing. Starting in January 2020, it will be illegal to sell CRISPR gene therapy kits without warnings that they are not safe to self-administer.
This is a weak signal that legislators are beginning to grapple with the fact that consumers can experiment with gene editing technologies without formal scientific training and outside licensed laboratories. Online biohacking videos have appeared on YouTube, showing how to self-administer CRISPR therapies to change the genes in some of their cells (such as arm muscles). Warnings about this practice are one thing, but how to regulate and monitor it is another challenge entirely.
CRISPR gene editing allows for relatively precise changes to the genome of living beings, including humans. This could be a game changer for enhancing some human capabilities or addressing conditions that have a strong and identified genetic components. Label warnings could be an attempt to curb enthusiasm and create a “proceed with caution” mindset. But if consumers perceive an opportunity to try an experimental cure, or enhance some desirable aspect of their bodies or minds, some may be willing to take the risk.
Humans are very complex systems, and the consequences of experimental edits are not fully predictable in living organisms. In another weak signal, an experiment that successfully increased brain size in guppies negatively affected other systems. As an author reporting on the California bill notes: “A big part of the problem is that our ability to manipulate DNA is shooting way ahead of our ability to really understand it.”
E. Gent, “California Passed the Country’s First Law to Prevent Genetic Biohacking Hub,” Singularity Hub, last modified August 19, 2019, https://singularityhub.com/2019/08/19/california-passed-the-countrys-first-law-to-prevent-genetic-biohacking/
A. Regalado, “Don’t change your DNA at home, says America’s first CRISPR law,” MIT Technology Review, last modified August 9, 2019, https://www.npr.org/sections/health-shots/2019/05/02/719665841/why-making-a-designer-baby-would-be-easier-said-than-done
State of California Office of Legislative Counsel. An act to add Chapter 37 (commencing with Section 22949.50) to Division 8 of the Business and Professions Code, relating to gene therapy kits, by S. Chang, Legislative Counsel of California, 2019