Gene editing has long been a hot topic in genomics and the scientific community, particularly since the discovery of the CRISPR tool in 2012. With an endless number of biomedical and biological applications, the tool has a bright future in shaping what molecular research may look like throughout the next decade.
However, with the tool comes a plethora of concerns being raised over how far the technology could go.
Can we expect to have the ability to choose our child’s eye color in the next couple of years? Could we even be able to delete an extra copy of a chromosome, which usually leads to Down syndrome, during a pregnancy?
It’s hard to predict how CRISPR will be used clinically in the upcoming years, but here’s what we know about the tool and the ethical questions being raised about its uses:
What is CRISPR?
CRISPR-Cas9 is a gene-editing tool developed by Jennifer Doudna and Emmanuelle Charpentier at the University of California, Berkeley.
The tool utilizes Cas9 enzymes, which work like scissors to cut identified parts of the DNA. This allows researchers to alter DNA sequences and modify the functions of genes. It can be used to correct genetic defects, treat and prevent the spread of disease and improve the yield of crops.
For example, CRISPR has been used to edit human cells in an experimental setting and create gene drives (increase the probability of a genetic trait passing from a parent to a child). This can be used to combat diseases like malaria, where a certain trait can make an individual immune to the condition, or treat genetic conditions before they arise.
In fact, multiple laboratories at UNC-Chapel Hill utilize the technology in their daily work — after all, being able to isolate DNA makes it easy to study genetic diseases.
UNC’s Genomics Core offers consulting and assistance for using CRISPR-Cas9. In addition, professors leading labs, such as Dr. Mark Zylka, have been awarded grants from the National Institute of Health to develop gene therapies utilizing the tool.
As the popularity and ease of gene editing increases, so too will its use across laboratories and industry settings.
In light of the pandemic, CRISPR is also being used experimentally to study the virus and to create rapid COVID-19 tests. Current research is being led by Doudna herself to develop an over-the-counter COVID-19 diagnostic test that could potentially be launched in 2021.
What are potential issues with the technology?
Apart from safety and concerns over governmental regulation of the tool, there are multiple ethical concerns that arise with gene editing.
Usually, when CRISPR comes up in conversation, so does eugenics. When you can use gene editing to eliminate traits from a gene pool, it brings into question how one decides which traits are “abnormal.”
Many individuals with genetic conditions argue that their conditions are part of who they are. Using CRISPR to genetically modify individuals to cure such diseases and be “biologically superior” borders closely on eugenics.
Individuals with disabilities bring into question that evaluating the quality of life of another person is a complex task — and one that is morally questionable when society stresses that people are of equal value, despite their differences. The idea of editing out genes in search of a “perfect” future is shocking, but it’s one that could very likely be a reality with the popularization of the tool.
Genome editing is a powerful, cutting-edge technology that could potentially reshape clinical environments and people's lives. However, it also has the power to threaten diversity across society, as well as exacerbate social inequality for individuals who are considered genetically inferior.
It’s imperative to keep an eye out for how it’s used not only globally, but also at prestigious research and medical universities such as UNC.
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