Anyone following the news has probably heard about Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats, aka CRISPR: a genome editing technique made famous for its efficiency and ease of use. It was created by Emmanuelle Charpentier and Jennifer Doudna PO ’85, who both recently received the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for this invention.
Sadly, a lot of fear around CRISPR started after an incident in 2015, when a Chinese researcher named He Jiankui edited the genes of two unborn twin girls with the intent of making them resistant to HIV. This alteration raised concerns because it could lead to unanticipated changes in the genomes in the long run. Even worse, it could lead to designer babies for which parents make specific requests in regard to their physical characteristics, thus turning genome editing into a modern form of eugenics.
Despite all of this, gene editing is not something to be scared of, and we must spread the word. It is a tool that can improve our lives when accompanied by strict regulations that control the accessibility to this technology and its gratuitous use. Every moment we spend afraid of gene editing is a moment someone who could be helped by it suffers unduly.
First and foremost, gene editing has the potential to treat a wide range of diseases. Scientists have been testing this theory in patients by targeting problematic genes in their DNA sequences responsible for maladies from cancer to blood disorders.
Similarly, gene editing could prove helpful in the prevention of illness if scientists find a way to edit the germline, the human reproductive cells which combine to form offspring. By identifying and fixing disease-causing mutations before individuals are born, scientists could bypass the need of having to develop new therapies in the first place, and people could avoid the mental and physical difficulties that come with having a severe disease, such as cancer.
Another way in which humans could benefit from tools such as CRISPR is applying it to agriculture. Besides, gene editing is already often used to provide us with the genetically modified plant varieties we see in the market today. Using CRISPR can lead to even more innovative solutions, such as the climate proofing of crops for extreme weather conditions, which are increasingly common nowadays due to climate change. Surprisingly, gene editing can also provide people with foods that have more nutritional benefits (e.g., golden rice) and confer disease resistance to agricultural products, thus improving the health of consumers.
Perhaps one of the least mentioned advantages is the opportunity to save endangered species. Some animals, such as the Tasmanian devil, face extinction due to an infectious cancer. Gene editing allows experts to perform crosses with better-adapted species populations that do not show gene abnormalities and directly transfer beneficial alleles to the threatened population.
Of course, such an innovative technology cannot come without risks. The scientific community is deeply concerned about the implications of germline editing, since it would introduce changes that can affect entire generations. Although some genetic interventions might prove beneficial for our health in the short term, they may create unintended mutations.
As scary as this might sound, recent research, such as the Human Genome Project, has provided experts with a better understanding of human biology, so it is very possible to predict the long-lasting effects of gene editing.
Apart from that, a panel of experts in Germany in May 2019 mentioned the dangers of editing germlines by underlining the possibility of enhanced individuals creating injustice in society because those individuals could have advantages over those who have not had their germlines modified.
Even though this is a serious potential problem, providing specific people with enhancements is not that bad if you consider the lack of fairness already present in the genetic lottery. Some people are naturally born with conditions that restrict them from doing certain things.
That being said, gene editing should not be targeting people with disabilities specifically. The variation in ability and the cultural differences that accompany disabilities contribute to society. Instead of trying to change people with disabilities through genetic engineering, we should be using the social model and providing accommodations to them. It is necessary for people with disabilities to participate in the CRISPR debate and provide their opinions so that people without disabilities can also understand that they should not be targeted.
Another issue that has to be addressed is the effect of genome editing on economic equity. It might further existing disparities in health care stemming from inaccessibility or create classes of individuals based on the quality of their genome.
Enhancements might distort society and lead to our valuing some characteristics over others. We could even end up in a “Gattaca” situation, where society is driven by eugenics to preserve only the best hereditary traits.
However, failing to move on with genome editing research because of these concerns would take away the ability for people with life-threatening disorders, such as sickle cell anemia patients, to obtain genetic therapies that could improve their quality of life.
A more effective solution would be to provide strict laws under which genome editing can be done so as to still offer this kind of service and alleviate any fears from the general public at the same time. One law could ensure that there are no financial barriers to genetic treatment. Guidelines could also exist regarding the need for genetic interventions, where they are not deemed as necessary if done only for aesthetic purposes.
A comparison could be drawn between CRISPR and vaccines. Just like vaccines, gene editing can provide protection against certain pathogens. Even though vaccines might have been met with hesitance when they were first introduced, they have now become widely accepted and are strongly encouraged in most parts of the world. Genome editing might seem frightful for now because of its revolutionary approach to treating diseases, but we have to realize how it could benefit public health.
It is necessary to educate people so they are not scared. CRISPR might seem fantastical, but it is not. This new technology has the potential to dramatically change our lives for the better, so we shouldn’t focus only on what could go wrong. Instead, we should strive to be aware of both sides of genome editing and work to remove the stigma around it.
Leah Voudouri PO ’24 is from Thessaloniki, Greece. As she enters her country’s second nationwide lockdown, she is on the search for new hobbies to try.