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Genome Editing, Big Potential or an Ethical Question?

CRISPR-Cas9 is a customizable tool that lets scientists cut and insert small pieces of DNA at precise areas along a DNA strand. (Image: Ernesto del Aguila IIINIH via Wikimedia Public Domain)
CRISPR-Cas9 is a customizable tool that lets scientists cut and insert small pieces of DNA at precise areas along a DNA strand. (Image: Ernesto del Aguila IIINIH via Wikimedia Public Domain)

Ever since scientists were able to sequence the entire human genome in 2003, the outlook on what could be done with this discovery — for good or for worse — became a hot topic.

With breakthrough after breakthrough in the field of genetics, supporters of genome editing are excited with the new discoveries, and where they could lead us in the future, however, those who oppose the use of genome-editing on humans have heavily concerns.

A ‘CRISPR’ breakthrough

Screen Shot_Youtube_CRISPR_Cas9_2

CRISPR uses a strand of RNA to guide an enzyme referred to as Cas9 to a specific spot in the genome, where the enzyme can add, remove, or replace parts of the DNA. (Image: Horizon Discovery via Screenshot/YouTube)

In 2015, the genome editing system called CRISPR — clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats — was crowned Science magazine’s “breakthrough of the year.”

How does CRISPR work its magic? In a nutshell it uses a strand of RNA to guide an enzyme — referred to as Cas9 — to a specific spot in the genome where it can add, remove, or replace parts of the DNA.

CRISPR is praised for being “cheap, widely available, and easy to use.” It, however, also came under scrutiny for some of its controversial attributes — “including the alteration of DNA in human embryos,” according to Science.

Up-to-date scientists have successfully applied this new method for genome editing to treat duchenne muscular dystrophy (DMD) in mice. “Duchenne muscular dystrophy is a group of diseases that cause progressive weakness and loss of muscle mass,” according to Mayo Clinic.

Most of the damage from duchenne muscular dystrophy results from a gene mutation which interrupts the production of proteins, which the muscles need to be healthy.

According to Science, researchers were able to use CRISPR to “snip out” the defective gene in the mice with DMD, allowing the mice to produce an essential protein the muscle needs, without restriction.

Before CRISPR, with traditional methods of genome editing, scientists were not able to find a real cure for the disease. “It has proven difficult to deliver enough muscle-building stem cells into the right tissues to stop the disease […] Now, CRISPR has entered the picture […]

Scientists have already used CRISPR to correct certain genetic disorders in cells taken from animals or people.

Researchers have successfully used CRISPR to treat a liver disease in adult mice,” Science reports.

Ethical boundaries

With all the good news about what CRISPR can do, some critics are posing a rational headwind to the countless fields of genome-editing.

A quote from a University of Miami article, titled, ‘Human Genome Editing Policy Requires Setting Thresholds Of Acceptability’ by Rosario Isasi, J.D., M.P.H, associate professor at the University of Miami, Miller School of Medicine, said:

The future of human genome-editing

Whether or not human genome-editing will be allowed broadly, and in which scope, has not been decided unilaterally. Even scientists among themselves are at odds about the the ethical implications involved in altering the human genome.

Watch the following illustration of how CRISPR technology for genome editing works by Horizon Discovery:

In December 2015, scientists got together for the National Academy of Sciences international summit on the safety and ethics of human gene-editing.

According to The Guardian, the issue gained even more urgency:

While the global debates mainly focus on laws and guidelines about what “germline, or hereditary, research is allowed,” those who are pro to the subject state that the ultimate goal is to “prevent mom and dad from passing devastating diseases to their children,” The Guardian writes.

Genome-editing seems to be developing into an inevitable thing of the future, whether legally allowed or not.

“This technology is poised to transform preventive medicine.[…] Banning human-germline editing could put a damper on the best medical research, and instead drive the practice underground to black markets and uncontrolled medical tourism,” George Church, a Harvard geneticist wrote in Nature.

The crossfire

Screen Shot genome editing

HFEA is the first regulator in the world to approve the gene editing of human embryos. (Image: Horizon Discovery via Screenshot/YouTube)

As of February 2016 “The Human Fertilization and Embryology Authority (HFEA)  [in the U.K.] has approved a research application from the Francis Crick Institute to use new ‘gene editing’ techniques on human embryos,” The Francis Crick Institute writes. Apparently the aim of the research is to “understand the genes human embryos need to develop successfully.”

Scientists, however, do not have a green light to “try and produce human gene-edited babies.” However, the Law and Biosciences Blog writes: “If you are morally opposed to any destruction of human embryos for research purposes, you should oppose this research.”

“The HFEA now has the reputation of being the first regulator in the world to approve this uncertain and dangerous technology. It has ignored the warnings of over a hundred scientists worldwide and given permission for a procedure, which could have damaging far-reaching implications for human beings,” says Anne Scanlan of the charity LIFE, in an article by The Telegraph.

According to a HFEA spokesman: “As with all embryos used in research, it is illegal to transfer them to a woman for treatment.”

“It is the very future of the way in which societies accept persons with disabilities that is at play since such gene editing procedures infer that they should not have been brought into existence,” says Dr. Calum MacKellar, Director of Research of the Scottish Council on Human Bioethics.

Conclusion

Thanks to CRISP the world of genome research has an effective means to alter the human genome in ways that some day may open up a new field of research, and medical ways to help people.

However, it seems judging from what some opponents of genome-editing say, the future outlook of this science borders on an analogy to opening pandora’s box.

Should man some day be allowed to replace the role of divine intervention? The crossfire is harsh, and might prove critical for the further development of our moral civilization, and the role of ethics in the coming generation of society.

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