CRISPR gene editing is a technique that makes it relatively easy and inexpensive to add, delete, or replace DNA sequences. It’s based on a process that occurs naturally in bacteria. Thanks to the pioneering work of scientists in 2011, the technology has been adapted to work on any kind of plant or animal DNA – including that of humans.
The technology of CRISPR gene editing is poised to bring enormous changes to our lives. The impact is just starting to be felt, with the success of early clinical trials of CRISPR-based medications. But not that many people know about the potential of CRISPR yet. News is just starting to seep out of the laboratories and universities and into the awareness of the public.
The positive applications of CRISPR gene editing technology are breathtaking. It will solve some of our most pressing problems. The impact on medicine will be revolutionary, providing new treatments and cures for diseases including cancer and dementia. CRISPR will also be used to increase food production and may even be used to create fuel.
But it can also be used for more controversial purposes. Do we want to live in a world where parents can select the traits of their offspring from a menu? Should we be using CRISPR gene editing for cosmetic touch-ups? What about for boosting IQ?
There are also questions of equity. Who will have access to the new medical treatments? Will these breakthrough treatments be available to all who need them, or only to the wealthy?
Looking at the big picture, CRISPR can change the natural course of human evolution. Is this good or bad? We all need to be included in answering these questions. It shouldn’t be left just to the scientists – or to those who wield political power.
Most people, scientists and non-scientists alike, believe that there are stark ethical differences between using CRISPR in reproductive cells, where the changes in the DNA will be passed onto future generations and using it in non-reproductive cells, where the changes affect only one person at a time.
The CRISPR scientific community has generally agreed to make CRISPR in human embryos off-limits, at least for the time being. However, in 2018, it was discovered that a rogue scientist had already gone ahead and edited the genes of two embryos, which were implanted and born as twin girls with altered DNA.
This experiment was widely condemned, and the scientist involved was sentenced to prison. But what about the future? If one scientist could use CRISPR to edit human embryonic DNA, surely more will follow. Should we ever allow it? Under what guidelines?
Meanwhile, the positive applications of CRISPR technology for humans are showing tremendous promise. A successful clinical trial used CRISPR to treat sickle cell anemia, which is a genetic disease, by removing cells from patients’ bodies, editing their DNA in the lab, and then infusing the cells back into the body of the person suffering from the disease. The recent news of SuperFi Cas-9 sheds more light on future CRISPR innovations.
A recent clinical trial went a step further. Instead of removing cells and editing them in a lab, scientists were able to use CRISPR to edit the cells inside the patients’ bodies by injecting them with the CRISPR gene editor. The technique was used to successfully treat a fatal genetic disease called transthyretin amyloidosis.
Perhaps not since the splitting of the atom has a single scientific technique held the power to unleash both enormous good and unimaginable disaster. The future may be closer than we think. CRISPR applications are likely to be a part of our lives within several decades. Ethicists urge us not to wait until then to decide how this powerful technology should be controlled, but instead, we should be getting ready now.