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CRISPR technology on the verge of ethics

August 11, 2017

Biotech companies that operate in genome editing are on a rush to keep pace with the way this technology is gaining momentum. Although the core of this genetic engineering technique is still highly disputable from an ethical point of view, it is nevertheless an extremely attractive field. Engineering human beings via genome editing. Healthy human beings to begin with. The debate of superior and inferior genes is back, if it was ever dropped. But what does CRISPR stand for?

What does the CRISPR technology mean?

The CRISPR abbreviation stands for Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats. This technology, nowadays widely employed in biomedical research and gene functions exploration, is deemed powerful and efficient for DNA engineering.

Due to its highly specialized nature, this technology is hard to describe to non-professionals. A down-to-earth conceptual description belongs to Jennifer Doudna, as quoted by BusinessInsider. She compares CRISPR with a molecular scalpel applied to genomes, whereas the previous similar tools she describes as mere sledgehammers. With CRISPR, scientists can modify the cell’s genome by cutting it exactly in the desired location. They may subsequently remove or add genes in that particular spot.

In conclusion, CRISPR is a powerful tool in what gene editing is concerned. As with all powerful tools,  this raises infinite concerns regarding the hands it falls in and the purposes it will be employed for.

CRISPR Purposes

Basic functions

So far (since 2013, when researchers first reported the use of CRISPR-Cas9 system), this technology’s main utility resided in its potential for treating diseases.  Researchers employed it as well for ameliorating plant and animal genes. Improving natural organisms by helping them better fight diseases seems all around an entirely positive thing.

However, modifying natural organisms in order to increase their resistance to viruses, pests or bacteria  leads straight into the GMO (Genetically Modified Organisms) debate. This issue has virulent supporters and opponents. Due to the fact that genomes are not completely understood, and that they imply interconnections between weak traits and crucial traits, there is the risk of harming the organism while trying to correct a problem. Any problem, however minor – some say.

Those who support these interventions invoke previous innovations in the history of humanity. Scientists weren’t completely aware of all the consequences of their work in those cases either. Nevertheless they did not let fears stand in their way. We owe medical breakthroughs, nuclear energy and a great part of out technology to the people who pushed forward, no matter what.

Next-level functions

Genetically intervening in order to remedy problems is only the base level in gene engineering. The next level would be intervening in order to enhance or to get the desired traits – as in agricultural hybridization or animal husbandry.  Some see nothing wrong with this either. If it stands in the man’s power to alter plants in order to get richer crops, or animals in order to obtain more meat, why not do it. Others claim that these endeavors imply trial and error phases of which the public is not aware and which would scare the more sensible of us. Surely all of us have seen in the movies how does an early experimental phase on genetic engineering looks like in its flesh and bone. Another counterargument for the genetic improvement resides again in the fact that a weakness might be a power in disguise when it comes to genes, and scientists cannot see the entire picture at the moment of their intervention.

For example, altering the genes that make plants sensitive to drought can seem like a good idea, but the same genes could serve in protecting the crops from a specific pest (fictitious example). Whenever such  links cannot be guessed, the effect would only manifest itself in case of a real-life trial.

2016 CRISPR news

What fuels the spirits in this matter furthermore? A Swedish developmental biologist, Fredrik Lanner, announced in September 2016 that he has started to edit the DNA in healthy human embryos. What Mr. Lanner considers an exciting new beginning, others see as the beginning of the end for the human race as we know it. But let’s keep in touch with the announced reality. Fredrik Lanner plans to genetically intervene on healthy embryos and study their subsequent evolution, only until they reach their 14 days stage of development. He also declared he wants to understand the way early human cells are regulated in the actual embryo, in order to use the results in treating autoimmune diseases or other affections that could benefit from its study.

The public opinion, however, sees in this 2016 announcement something else. If the research progresses at the expected rate and the results are satisfactory, we might have custom-designed babies in the future. Which raises quite a lot of ethical problems, if only.

Here is a sneak peak into what the debate on “superior” genes brings in. As the quoted source mentions “there are no superior genes, only genes that provide advantages with a trade off for other disadvantages”.

Meanwhile, in China, where there might be a less stringent medical regulatory system, researchers made similar experiments. The results didn’t turn out very well, as this Tech Crunch article mentions.

CRISPR trends

The year 2016 also saw biotech companies involved in CRISPR operations making major moves, such as filing for their IPO. The public thus has the opportunity to buy shares related to the disputed endeavor of changing the human genome.One example of such move is that of CRISPR Therapeutics, which decided to go public although initially it reported loosing quite an amount of money.

Another well-known company, Monsanto, acquired a licensing agreement for the use of CRISPR-Cas9 from MIT’s Broad Institute and Harvard, while being in turn purchased by Bayer AG.