So you saw the movie Venom, or maybe not. In the movie, the bad guy Carlton Drake secretly indulges in testing the symbiote aliens on human hosts, and turns out, a lot of humans reject the “Parasite” and eventually die. Woah, why am I talking about this suddenly? Now imagine conducting such experiments, but not only on adults, but embryos too, human embryos. Yes you heard it right!
What is Gene Editing ?
Suppose you have written this shining new essay for your school, and now you are proofreading it. Unfortunately, you find a lot of spelling and grammatical errors, what do you do? You cut and correct it right? Gene or Genome editing is a similar process in which any organisms DNA can me modified or reprogrammed to remove errors. But that was text, how can you cut and edit DNA !?
That’s where CRISPR comes in, and no it is not a food brand (Pun intended).
CRISPR-Cas9 is the abbreviation for Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats and CRISPR-associated protein 9.
Wow, that’s a lot to swallow, isn’t it? You can think of CRISPR as a programmable software used to precisely locate a part of the DNA containing an error, cut it , modify it or replace it with a new error free part. If you wish to understand the working in depth, I suggest you watch this amazing and insightful TED talk by the co-founder of CRISPR-Cas9 technology, Jennifer Doudna. –
Since the DNA basically consists of the genetic information of any organism, the error can be anything ranging from HIV, Cancer traits, any kind of disability etc.
Okay, but why do we need it?
Gene editing opens up a whole new world of possibilities. For example, did you know that Diabetes is basically incurable? In 2016, diabetes was the direct cause of 1.6 million deaths in the world. The worst part, it can only be controlled but never be treated, that is, up until now. Diseases like diabetes can often times be hereditary. Gene editing tools like CRISPR-Cas9 can be used to essentially delete that part of your DNA responsible for carrying the diseased trait.
The Implications are HUGE. Think about it, you can possibly eliminate diseases like Cancer and make any organism, let alone humans, healthy again. Not only that, using technologies like Gene Drive, breeding of gene driven and normal organisms can result in modification and possible elimination of the diseased gene in the entire species.
What can possibly go wrong?
Like most medical treatments, Gene editing using CRISPR is prone to its fare share of problems. CRISPR relies on natural cell repair, after snipping out the defected part. However, sometimes the repair itself might accidentally substitute the “bad” part and cut out the “good” part of the DNA. It can also affect nearby parts of the DNA which were not supposed to be modified and cause mutation. This can result in unintended changes in the body causing other complexities.
Is it ethical then?
“With great power come great responsibility”.
“Lulu and Nana were born normal and healthy,” he told a rapt audience at a Human Genome Editing Conference in Hong Kong, referring to the twins by pseudonyms. Chinese biophysics researcher and professor He Jiankui claims to have successfully engineered the world’s first genetically modified human babies. He claimed the gene-edited twin girls were born earlier this month. Quite naturally, he recieved a lot of backlash for the same, with many questioning his integrity and some even calling it a “Scandal”. However, Jiankui says he feels rather proud about his scientific breakthrough.
Ethical issues arise when you talk about essentially modifying and interfering with nature :
1. Passing of the edited genes in the future generations without there consent
2. Testing on human embryos and possible side effects
3. Misuse to produce superior species of human beings with traits like high intelligence, supernatural strength etc.
4. Safety and possible anomalies in the editing process
Gene Editing is still in its rudimentary stages. It all comes down to weighing the Pros and Cons. This technology can revolutionize the health industry and possibly be the future solution for many diseases. Possibly in the future, we will have a disease free society with each human being in perfect condition. The technology could be used to create what is called “Designer Babies”.
The fundamental question is, do we need such “perfect” humans ?