How Close Are Criminals to Evading Justice Using CRISPR?
There are fears that CRISPR could be used by criminals to clear their names from forensic databases or evade detection. These warnings come from Professor George Church, of Harvard University, who was the first to pioneer the use of the technique.
Today, you can bag yourself a CRISPR kit online for around £150, writes The Telegraph. This is exactly what Josiah Zayner did and later injected himself with a genetic cocktail during a live stream to increase his muscle mass.
Speaking of whether CRISPR has the potential to alter DNA to the extent that it would make forensic evidence unusable, Church said, “We could do that today, easily. A lot of it is done by blood and even if you just get a stem cell transplant you have a new identity.
“I think CRISPR actually would be easier than a stem cell transplant because (a transplant) would have to be done sterrily and you would need to irradiate yourself to get rid of the old ones and that is not something even Zayner would do. I could imagine there being an industry. My guess is though, they would start with a bone marrow transplant to some random person. You wouldn’t even necessarily need CRISPR.”
This year, the first CRISPR trial in Europe is expected to get underway to cure the disease thalassaemia, a blood disorder which reduces the production of haemoglobin, the protein which carries oxygen to cells.
However, the technology does have a much darker side, which has led to biohackers like Zayner performing dangerous experiments on themselves. This led to the FDA in the US having to issue a warning against self-administration of genetic therapies, saying kits intended for human use were against the law.
Although the prospect of criminals using CRISPR to alter their DNA is definite, it would require a ‘fairly extreme’ medical intervention. “I have come across chimerism in samples I have processed for identification purposes from leukemia patients who have received bone marrow transplants, so it would be possible,” explained Dr. Eleanor Graham, programme leader in Forensic Science at Northumbria University.
“This sort of transplantation would affect circulatory blood, not other tissue types to the same extent. I could foresee a future when reference samples from a suspect may need to be tissue matched to the crime scene sample for comparison purposes if this ever became a reality. The medical intervention required is also fairly extreme.”
David Wilson, emeritus professor of criminology at Birmingham City University, added, “I think there is always a hare and tortoise race between law enforcement and the offenders as criminals come up with new ways to evade the justice systems. Criminals have already started in a limited way of attempting to evade forensic techniques by planting DNA at the scene of a crime.
“Fortunately most crimes are cleared up quite quickly, not as a consequence of the DNA database but because there is often a relationship between the perpetrator and the victim. So it would have to be a specific type of clever career criminal who would be attempting this kind of genetic technique.”
But there are some experts who are a lot more skeptical about the possibility of criminals genetically editing their DNA. Dr. Alexander Gray, Principal Investigator at the Leverhulme Research Centre for Forensic Science, University of Dundee explained that genetic editing in the livers of mice had shown the new DNA eventually takes over, replacing the genetic code. However, he said that this would be a lot harder for humans, “If you were in the forensic database and you changed your DNA it would be possible to avoid detection, but I think it would be extremely difficult to achieve.
“You can manipulate the genome but to do it on the scale where it would have a forensic effect would be tricky. For example, if you took semen in a rape case, to have an impact there, CRISPR would need to alter the entire germ line,” he added.
“And people are shedding skin all the time, so you would need to make a genetic change which impacted every skin cell.”