The issue of gene modification has always been a point of discussion around the world, not just due to its scientific uses but also its ethical and moral implications. CRISPR/Cas9, a gene-editing tool that can modify DNA with breakthrough accuracy, is turning out to be the newest double-edged sword in this debate.
CRISPR, which stands for “clustered regularly-interspaced short palindromic repeats,” works with the protein Cas9 in targeted gene manipulation. This was first discovered by Japanese scientists in 1987, and the next years were spent in studying it. Scientists at the University of California Berkeley, CRISPR/Cas9 made explosive headlines in 2012 when they first presented the advances they had made in this technique.
Since its introduction, scientists claimed to have used CRISPR/Cas9 to slow the growth of Hepatitis C in humans, have attempted to break Mendel’s Law of Inheritance and have tried to use it on human embryos to remove a disease-causing gene. The latter was the subject of much controversy, including from within the scientific community.
But what is CRISPR/Cas9? To put it simply, CRISPR/Cas9 works by enhancing a bacteria’s immunity response to eliminate any invading genetic material. The UC Berkeley scientists, led by Jennifer Doudna and Emmanuelle Charpentier were able to manipulate the Cas9 protein to create a new, more accurate gene-editing technique that would be able to identify, cut and replace any gene sequence.
The response to and results of CRISPR/Cas9 tests have been astounding. Easy to use and applicable to seemingly any type of animal, human stem and immune cells, CRISPR/Cas9 has since been used to eliminate viruses, modify crops, screen for cancer in genes and much more. After these successful projects, the next and arguably most dangerous step is in using CRISPR/Cas9 on human reproduction.
While CRISPR/Cas9 has an immense capacity to push innovative, highly advanced solutions not just in genetics, the downside is in its similar capacity to be misused. The ease with which it can be used allows it to be available at a lower cost in the long run, making it more accessible on the consumer level. This then opens the discussion on gene selection for cosmetic, rather than biological purposes.
Coming on the heels of this issue is the news that the UK Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA) has granted scientists in London permission to use CRISPR/Cas9 in embryonic research and genetic modification – a giant first step in this field. Kathy Niakan, a developmental biologist at the Francis Crick Institute in London, got approval for her application to use CRISPR/Cas9 in gene modification for early-stage embryos. The research team will experiment for seven days, after which the embryos will be destroyed.
Paul Nurse, director of Crick, says that he fully supports HFEA’s decision.
Dr. Niakan’s proposed research is important for understanding how a healthy human embryo develops and will enhance our understanding of IVF success rates, by looking at the very earliest stage of human development.
Arm in arm with such steps forward are the matters of regulating the CRISPR/Cas9 process. David Magnus, a bioethicist at Stanford University, says that many people in reproductive health are concerned about the implications these gene modification techniques might have when unregulated. However, he also feels that it is “probably too early to worry” about regulations, or the lack thereof.
The responsibility the use of CRISPR/Cas9 carries is enormous, and while acknowledging that it is indeed a ground-breaking tool that will significantly widen the world as it is now, it is also something that must be carefully weighed when it involves literally changing human life.