CRISPR is technology that can be used to edit genes by finding specific bits of DNA inside a cell. Once found, it has the potential to alter that piece of DNA forever.
The biggest concern is that altering DNA could have disastrous effects on the future health of the human. This idea of “designer babies” is a pie-in-the-sky fantasy that will likely be very, very rare.
In regards to detecting Sars-Cov-2, Singularity Hub covers an explosive new finding: non-cutting Cas enzymes (https://singularityhub.com/2022/06/06/new-crispr-tool-protects-against-viruses-without-making-any-dna-cuts/ ) which were first covered in the Journal of Biochemical and Molecular Toxicology . Cas enzymes work by cutting a DNA sequence at a specific genetic location and deleting or inserting DNA sequences, (but these latest enzymes do it less invasively than its cousins Cas9, Cas12 and Cas13). They can change a single base pair of DNA, large pieces of chromosomes, or regulation of gene expression levels.
In fact, it was as early as 1987 that the first hint of the CRISPR-Cas system was discovered, when an unusual repetitive DNA sequence, which subsequently was defined as a CRISPR, was discovered in the Escherichia coli genome. (https://journals.asm.org/doi/10.1128/JB.00580-17)
But back to ethics.
Two weeks after the National Emergency was declared on March 13, 2020, the NIH raises concerns about the bioethical issues of the CRISPR-Cas9 technology. One month before the National Emergency was declared, it was argued that human germline editing will undermine life as a gift and warned of the technology that gives humans the hubris to “play God.” (https://www.liebertpub.com/doi/10.1089/crispr.2019.0033)
Future Work Institute states, “If genetic edits are made to embryos, or to egg or sperm cells, these changes will be inherited by all future generations.” This means that your children will look different than you in every way. No longer will little Johnny have Grandpa’s eyes or Aunt Betty’s nose. It also means that to genetically mutate an individual can cause inherited future diseases whereas before they never existed in the family genetic code to begin with.
But scientists focusing on saving the human race from a virulent virus feel that too much is at stake to worry about these petty anomalies that ultimately break down human DNA: it allows scientists to rewrite the genetic code in almost any organism. CRISPR is simpler, cheaper and more precise than previous gene editing techniques and has a range of real-world applications, including curing genetic disease and creating drought-resistant crops.
CRISPR, the acronym for ”Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats” is not as advanced as some neuroscientists would have you believe or as forward-moving as they would have hoped by now. In 2016, scientists met in Washington DC for an annual gene therapy meeting and ultimately found the technology perilous and too abstract. For instance, “CRISPR still has a long way to go before it can be used safely and effectively to repair — not just disrupt — genes in people. That is particularly true for most diseases, such as muscular dystrophy and cystic fibrosis, which require correcting genes in a living person because if the cells were first removed and repaired then put back, too few would survive.” (https://www.science.org/content/article/gene-editor-crispr-won-t-fully-fix-sick-people-anytime-soon-here-s-why)
Therefore, the scientific community was shocked when biophysics researcher He Jankui announced in 2018 he had helped produce genetically edited babies by forging ethical review documents and misleading doctors into unknowingly implanting gene-edited embryos into unsuspecting women. (https://www.science.org/content/article/chinese-scientist-who-produced-genetically-altered-babies-sentenced-3-years-jail). He has served his three year prison sentence and as of April 2022 was released from a Chinese prison. The story itself was alarming in that it posed the consideration that if this biophysics researcher was willing and able, with support from various actors in the scientific community, to commit this unethical act then certainly others must have been able to get away with it quietly without any national fanfare.
Often times when these sensationalized stories are released it’s to announce that these things are taking place right under our nose and the media are following their own brand of ethics by showcasing one or two stories, arguing we can’t claim ignorance when a story like He Jankui’s, for instance, was out in the open all along.
As a result of He Jankui’s experiment, the gene edited babies that were born are now under special supervision. In February 2022 two prominent bioethicists in China are calling on the government to set up a research center dedicated to ensuring the well-being of the first children born with edited genomes.(https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-022-00512-w)
Ethical issues continue as what the He Jankui story has done is nothing more than set a precedence for experimenting on live humans. TIME all but admits this in their August 2019 article (https://time.com/5642755/crispr-gene-editing-humans/ ) and prior to his April 2022 release, in May 2021 NPR fielded a feel-good story about how CRISPR technology could restore patient’s sight (https://www.npr.org/sections/health-shots/2021/05/10/993656603/blind-patients-hope-landmark-gene-editing-experiment-will-restore-their-vision). In July 2020 the National Cancer Institute announced its use of CRISPR technology on cancer patients, claiming that it’s the changes in DNA that cause cancer.
So, ethics be damned.
It seems humans are unhappy with their current state, willing to scapegoat their own DNA as the reason for ongoing health problems and are open to being experimented on for what they are led to believe as improvements to their current health status and well being.
Natalie de Souza asks the question eloquently enough, “With CRISPR, our species can turn its inexorable will to control nature back onto itself. Eventually, we could guide human evolution. Does this mean that we should?” (https://www.nybooks.com/articles/2021/04/29/crispr-editing-humanity-future/). But eloquence isn’t enough when slicing and dicing the human DNA project.
Personally, I’m inclined to believe that the science must guide the ethics, and truly this idea that we can make designer babies is a case of marketing to cover up the continued human experimentation that seems to be moving forward at lightning speed. After all, with every iteration in technology, as we’ve learned throughout the years with the advancements of iPhone upgrades for instance, there is always years of trial and error. As Scientific American points out, “from the earliest days of the CRISPR-Cas9 era, scientists have known that the first step in how it edits genomes — snipping DNA — creates an unholy mess: Cellular repairmen frantically try to fix the cuts by throwing random chunks of DNA into the breach and deleting other random bits. Research published suggests that’s only the tip of a Titanic-sized iceberg: CRISPR-Cas9 can cause significantly greater genetic havoc than experts thought, the study concludes, perhaps enough to threaten the health of patients who would one day receive CRISPR-based therapy. (https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/potential-dna-damage-from-crispr-seriously-underestimated-study-finds/).
As one very kind famous doctor said to me recently, “You are fearfully and wonderfully made.” Perhaps we should not only accept our flaws, or even our disabilities but celebrate them and let nature take its course to preserve us as we are.
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