According to the CDC, about 47,000 Americans died from an opioid overdose in 2018, a number that remained steady from the previous year. This is despite more than $9 billion in federal grants to states, largely for “medication-assisted treatment”, over the last three years.
Craig Stevens, a professor of pharmacology at Oklahoma State University, outlined a proposal to prevent opioid overdose deaths by “turning off” a specific receptor for opioids in the brain.
Stevens advocates for the genetic alteration of people struggling with opioid addiction by injecting CRISPR molecules into the brain via “a new neurosurgical microinjection technique.” The injected CRISPR molecules would render the mu opioid receptor nonfunctional in specific neurons. In this way, death by overdose — which is caused by slowed or impaired breathing — could be prevented. Opioid addiction, however, would persist.
Any treatment that claims it can save nearly 50,000 lives a year is worthy of our attention. But I take issue with this proposal because it reinforces America’s long history of treating national medical crises — AIDS, SARS-CoV-2, mental health — reactively, rather than proactively, and on an individual, rather than societal, level. This approach has failed every time. The opioid epidemic is no different.
Stevens is advocating for a research direction, not an urgent clinical intervention. Still, the cause of the opioid epidemic is not genetics: it is societal and healthcare shortcomings. Those are things CRISPR cannot fix.