From Disease Eradication to Designer Babies, CRISPR Opens up a World of Opportunity
It’s the biggest development in gene editing technology and it opens up the kind of possibilities dreamed of in science fiction, like a future where disease can be cured easily, or genetic ‘faults’ can be corrected at, or before birth. However, some of the most enjoyable science fiction can also be terrifying and, for many, CRISPR-Cas9 technology is more Huxley’s “Brave New World” than Sir Francis Bacon’s “New Atlantis”.
Discussions around gene editing are nothing new, but have focused on cases that make an impact in the real world, i.e. GM food. Now, the apparent ease and accuracy with which CRISPR can be used has moved “GM people” from the realm of theory and fiction into reality.
The reasons many are wary of this newly developing technology, which allows scientists to “cut” genes at specific sections enabling modification to occur, are that it not only opens the door to a potential utopian disease-free future, but it also carries heavy ethical and moral implications. Gene editing allows for dystopian fantasies to become reality. We will see – and possibly already have seen – the headlines about the possibilities of “designer babies ”, new “breeds” of human, or new bio-weapons. We’re just starting to learn about living with the reality of CRISPR. It’s not ‘just’ a tool that scientists can use in their research.
Last December at the International Summit on Human Gene Editing , concerns surrounding the issues of using gene editing were discussed. Speakers at the conference accepted that this is the potential future that we are facing and while they stressed that clinical uses of gene editing should be closely monitored, they did not lay out specific guidelines recommending which applications would be considered ethical and which would be rejected. Against this background, the announcement in summer 2016 that a Chinese research team was given the go ahead to conduct the very first CRISPR-Cas9 gene editing study on human subjects is a controversial one.
Lets take a brief look at where CRISPR is at in terms of human trials, where it is likely to head in the future, and what ethical implications this has.
In 2016 Human DNA was Edited for the First Time With CRISPR
CRISPR technology is constantly evolving and developing. This year alone we have seen it being used in order to make pig organs safe for human transplant, and in attempts to remove the malaria parasite from mosquitos. But most importantly, this was the year that the technology was first used on human DNA. Clinical trials to modify human embryos and to investigate the vulnerabilities of leukaemia cells were both approved. Results from the trial on human embryos, conducted in China, were published in April 2016. As expected, public reactions were divided. Studies showed that CRISPR-Cas9 technology is suitable to be used in modifying genes in human embryos, therefore opening up the possibility of eradicating devastating genetic diseases before a child is born. However, it also opens up the possibility of huge ethical misconduct, because CRISPR technology doesn’t draw the line at what genes may or may not be edited.
Following this, another research team also in China was then given approval to use CRISPR technology for the very first time in living human patients. Oncologists injected CRISPR-modified cells into a patient who was suffering from an aggressive form of lung cancer. Reports confirm that this trial went well and a further 9 patients will now receive treatment, we can expect results to be announced next year.
A Bright Future for Human Gene Editing?
Researchers in the US are hot on the heels of their Chinese counterparts. This past summer the first US CRISPR clinical trial got the green light , a trial which is set to declare whether this kind of technology is fit for human use. If all goes well in this trial, we can expect to see more given the go ahead next year.
But what about the ethical implications? Will there be a limit to the development and application of this technology? Should there be? The bottom line is that temptation to use this kind of technology for its therapeutic advantages is a hard one to resist, even in light of the potential for misuse that it opens up. Currently there are a number of national and international organisations who oversee the ethical clearance of CRISPR studies. For example the NIH were the board who approved the first US CRISPR study in humans, but there is also the Medical Research Council and the Hinxton Group . Interestingly at the International Summit on Human Gene Editing the creator of CRISPR technology voiced his wish for a pause in editing heritable genes in humans.
National Rivalries to Fuel Research Advances
Additionally, in the coming years we can expect that the moral argument of CRISPR may be overshadowed by the biomedical rivalry between the US and China which the media are predicting, dubbing it ‘Sputnik 2.0’. We can expect to see fierce competition between research teams in both regions in the race to develop human applications of CRISPR techniques.
A Final Takeaway
With a sense of urgency and excitement within the scientific community to push forward with CRISPR in order to reap the benefits of gene editing, do you think that the ethical concerns surrounding its use will take a back seat? Is enough is currently being done in terms of regulation and guidelines? Do we have cause for concern about this rapidly developing technology or should we be embracing it?
An article on the Medical Daily website questions whether CRISPR technology will one day be used to create “perfect humans”. In the social climate we are currently living in do you think that there will be a future in which the genetic engineering of “perfect humans” is acceptable?
My grateful thanks to Sarah Moore for help in writing the majority of this article