Imagine a world without cancer. Without Cystic Fibrosis, HIV, Herpes, or Huntington’s disease. This is the world that gene editing may bring us. With Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats (CRISPR) and CRISPR-associated protein 9 (CRISPR-Cas9), this world may one day become reality. CRISPR-Cas9 is the cheapest, fastest, and most accurate gene editing technology to date.
How does it work?
CRISPR-Cas9 uses a strand of RNA to aim the Cas9 enzyme to a point in the genome with a similar gene sequence. The Cas9 enzyme then cuts the DNA strands at that point. Then, the cell’s repair systems fix the gap. The DNA changes occur during this repair. The cells close the gap using a mechanism that can insert, sequence, or delete a small amount of DNA. Most of these edits in the genes occur in somatic cells. Somatic cells are basically any cells in the body that are not a sperm or egg cell. This means that any edits made to the genome will not affect future offspring.
Germline cells are the cells that pass their genetic material on to their offspring. This means that any changes in the genome of germline cells will be passed to future generations, affecting the rest of that bloodline. Based on ethics concerns about this, most countries do not permit germline cell editing.
What is possible now?
We are able to successfully alter the genes of many mammals, such as mice, and even monkeys. CRISPR-Cas9 has allowed somatic and germline editing to be plausible in our species, but studies are rare and highly regulated due to ethics concerns. Because of this, scientists must further study gene editing technology before genetically engineering humans. As well as this, even though we have the means to genetically engineer humans, the technology is in its infancy, and more exploration and testing is necessary before it can make further developments.
There are many arguments on the ethics of genetically engineering humans. Selecting humans based on traits is already happening. Many women carrying a baby diagnosed with down syndrome choose to terminate their pregnancy. If genetic editing becomes widely available, it is almost certain that many genetic disorders such as down syndrome may be eradicated. This is problematic because unlike cancer, down syndrome and other similar genetic disorders are not necessarily bad. Many people have different opinions as to what makes a disorder actually need fixing. Is there really something “wrong” with those who have down syndrome and similar conditions?
Additionally, if genetic editing becomes commercial, some may want to modify their offspring to be more predisposed to certain traits such as intelligence, physical strength, and beauty. If people modify germline cells, the genomes of future generations will be permanently altered. However, if we do not explore this technology, are we condemning people with diseases such as cancer to potentially preventable suffering? So, where does society draw the line? Where would you draw the line?