The industry of medicine has taken huge strides since modern antibiotics were introduced in the early 20th century. We have all but eradicated diseases that have once plagued countless populations, such as measles and smallpox. Today, the latest breakthrough in medicine is genetic editing: being able to modify the genome of various animals and control their hereditary destiny, according to a PubMed article.
How exactly is genetic editing performed? The process utilizes a pair of molecular scissors known as ZFNs. These genetic tools can eliminate a genetic mutation by “cutting” the gene out of the DNA strand or replacing mutated genes with normal ones, according to Gene Therapy Net.
Another editing tool that was recently introduced to the medical field is CRISPR, which utilizes RNA molecules that possess the ability to target specific genes in a strand of DNA and make modifications to that gene, according to the U.S. National Library of Medicine’s Genetics Home Reference.
Just what makes this new medicinal method so revolutionary? Most doctors appreciate genetic editing for its ability to cure and prevent hereditary diseases. Take, for example, cystic fibrosis, a disorder involving the clogging of airways in the lungs by mucus. This disease poses difficulties for breathing, and victims of cystic fibrosis can experience death as early as 37 years of age.
However, with genetic editing, the embryo’s genome can be tweaked, and the gene for cystic fibrosis can be removed. Therefore, when the child is born, they will not be diagnosed with cystic fibrosis, when their DNA had previously destined them to have it. These augmented traits can also be passed down to the next generation. This concept of eliminating or modifying a specific gene is something that has only been a figment of scientific imagination up until now, which is why genetic editing is such a groundbreaking form of medical therapy.
Recently, a scientist in China, Dr. He Jiankui of Southern University of Science and Technology in Shenzhen, claimed to have created the world’s first genetically edited human embryo: a pair of twin girls, according to Vox. He used Crispr-Cas9 gene editing tools to augment the twins for HIV resistance, an extremely rare genetic trait; however the international scientific community was quick to denounce his work.
“Gene editing itself is experimental and is still associated with off-target mutations, capable of causing genetic problems early and later in life, including the development of cancer,” said Julian Savulescu, a professor of practical ethics at the University of Oxford.
To illustrate the drawbacks to this medical discovery, skeptics argue that editing the genome of a human embryo can put it at risk of acquiring mutations that will be impossible to remove once the embryo evolves into a human.
“[It’s] unconscionable… an experiment on human beings that is not morally or ethically defensible,” Dr. Kiran Musunuru, a University of Pennsylvania gene-editing expert said.
Many questions concerning the moral and ethical implications of genetic editing are also raised. For example, should we really interfere with mother nature’s activity? Even some scientists condemn the idea of genetic editing, arguing that the practice is unethical in the sense that the operation is being performed without the consent of the patient, or rather, the patient does not possess the ability to grant permission, as it is still in the form of an embryo.
Furthermore, religious groups are against the idea of allowing science to interfere with God’s doings. They believe that God destines each and every individual to appear a certain way and behave a certain way, and any altering of these dictations would be considered sinful and religiously unethical. Others, from bioethicists to economists, believe that genetic editing would widen the gap between the wealthy and poor; expensive gene editing treatments and services may help augment those who can afford them with higher intelligence and better physical performance, but they can also forsake those who cannot afford them.
In short, whether genetic editing will become a regular healthcare treatment service is a decision that remains unseen. In Dr. He Jiankui’s words, “Society will decide what to do next.”