On November 25, 2018, Chinese scientist He Jiankui made history as he genetically edited two embryos and implanted them into a woman’s uterus, the embryos later created real babies. Even more surprisingly, he genetically modified these babies so they were resistant to HIV infection. The world was shocked by his achievements and his climb towards controlling the HIV epidemic, but surprisingly later was sentenced to three years in jail by the Chinese government for conducting “illegal medicine practices.”
Gene-editing has been a concept that has been around for many years, out of all our medical innovations in the past few decades, it could be argued that this is one of the most impressive. While gene-editing has it’s cool party tricks, changing the eye color, hair texture, and skin tone of children before they’re even born. It makes people in control of their offspring’s genetics. However, the better result of this experiment stands that gene-editing could potentially save the lives of millions of people by changing genetic mutations to prevent hereditary diseases such as cancer, Parkinson’s, and Alzheimer’s. So the question is, why was this amazing innovation banned?
Now we all are aware of how long genetic engineering and modifications have been around. In our society, the words “non-GMO” are constantly thrown around in our local supermarkets when describing the organic nature of foods. We have definitely seen our cotton candy grapes, which were honestly too sweet to be real, but nonetheless, we’ve all tasted genetically modified foods. After several years of testing, developing, and implementing genetic modifications in our agriculture, the question had finally arrived, what happens when we do the same to humans? This was when CRISPR/Cas9 was invented.
CRISPR/Cas9 is a modern medical technology that is made to precisely cut, modify, delete, replace, or correct precise sections of DNA. CRISPR stands for “clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats,” and Cas9 stands for its association with protein nine. Essentially, CRISPR/Cas9 was available to do three different functions, disrupt, delete, or correction/insertion. Disruption worked to add or delete base pairs that later caused the gene itself to inactivate due to the flaw. Deletion deleted larger fractures of DNA using two helper RNAs that targeted the separate ends to reconnect them after the section of DNA was removed through the Cas9 enzyme to prevent disruption and preserve the function of the DNA itself. Finally, correction or insertion consists of adding a DNA template that allows the cell itself to correct the gene. Needless to say, CRISPR/Cas9 technology held a lot of potential in the future of genetic engineering.
Since genetics are the reason to us being who we are, the concept of being able to change thirds was huge. CRISPR holds the ability to change the color of our future generations hair, eyes, and their height while they are only in embryo. With no surprise, this was found to be unethical to forcibly change the genetics of a child before they were even born. However, CRISPR also held the ability to stop hereditary diseases such as cancer, Alzheimer’s, and Parkinson’s disease before they even showed symptoms in people, being able to save millions of lives. By knowing your own genetic history, it would be possible to evaluate the chances of offspring having similar diseases, thus CRISPR could work to delete or disrupt that gene. This medical innovation held great potential in the world of genetics and epidemics.
Many scientists and researchers around the world found this experimentation to be unethical and unsafe due to its potential effects on the human gene pool which could call for unwanted consequences. It was also seen that this procedure was highly experimental, making it extremely dangerous for the pregnant women and embryo on which it was tested on. In 2019, eighteen scientists around the world from the journal Nature declared a five-year suspension on gene-editing that involved altering the genes in eggs, sperm, or embryos that would then be transferred for pregnancy. They believed the world would be unprepared for the effects such advancements in genetic research would make, and the implications of this in the real world would cause some difficulties. Likewise, they were unsure of the long-term effects of such gene-editing, while some may work for different species of animals, it cannot be certain that the same would happen when applied to humans.
While genetic editing has no doubt been proven to be an amazing advancement, there are many ‘what ifs’ that appear when discussing these matters. This innovation still holds huge potential and could save millions in the long run. So, what do you think, is gene-editing an invention that should be applied in society or not?