The CRISPR revolution : the potentials and dangers of gene-editing research
In July this year, Harvard University published their latest scientific accomplishment. Using the gene editing technique CRISPR, they encoded a series of images and a GIF into the DNA of E. Coli. The implications of this are huge, and researchers are confident that they will be able to employ bacteria as tiny video cameras to assist in capturing difficult-to-access genetic information. Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats (CRISPR) utilises two proteins to insert information into the DNA of the bacteria.
This is the latest development in the series of applications of CRISPR-Cas9. The technology enables geneticists and medical researchers to edit parts of the bacteria’s genome by removing, adding or altering sections of the DNA sequence, and currently the simplest, most versatile and precise method of genetic manipulation.
The potential of this technology is endless, but we need to be cautious.
Earlier this year, a group of scientists published an article raising serious concerns over the use of the technology, claiming it could cause unexpected mutations when editing in vivo. And of course while there the real potential for eradicating devastating genetic disease, it also represents an opportunity to pre-select “desirable” traits in offspring, thus raising the ethical and health-related dangers of using CRISPR to create so-called “designers babies”.
Policy regulations for the CRISPR/cas9 system vary greatly around the world. For instance, in 2016 British scientists were given permission to genetically modify human embryos by using CRISPR-Cas9 techniques, but were forbidden from implanting the embryos and ordered to destroy them after seven days. While in China, despite regulations, there is no real legal enforcement, and there are numerous loopholes in the guidelines. As a result of this, Chinese researchers were the first to edit the genes of a human embryo.
Several scientists have heralded gene editing research on human embryos as a “moral necessity” as gene editing technologies have enormous potential in the fight against disease. More precise gene editing techniques could virtually eradicate genetic birth defects, which affect nearly 8 million children every year.
It’s clear that there’s a real need for a “Universal Declaration on the Human Genome and Human Rights” so the technology can be employed in a responsible way by the scientific community.
So what are the next steps?
As more and more applications for this technology are introduced across the board, from agriculture to bio-energy, the need for a stricter legislation will only increase. In order to find a balance between regulation and permission, bioethicists need to be involved in the conversation in order to ensure we keep human values and morals firmly at the heart of the technology.