CRISPR: Genetic Editing 101 and Ethics

03 May, 2018

If you’ve watched Dwayne Johnson’s latest movie called ‘Rampage’, then you must have got a first look on the concept of genetic engineering and its implications. Needless to say, that in reality there would be no gigantic DNA-messed-up animals with super powers; and clearly no change would happen overnight. Still it is fascinating – and a tad important for that matter – to gain a further insight on the mechanisms of this newly developed scientific field and the impact it can have on humans and humanity alike.

How it works

First things first, we need to lay down some terminology. I know it can be boring but hang in there; I’ll keep as plain simple as possible. Genetic engineering, or genetic editing are two names for the same concept. Basically, both refer to alternations of parts of one’s DNA. Those parts are called genes and they are responsible for everything that living organisms comprise of. In addition, the composition of your genes determines whether you’ll be tall, short, blonde, or a dolphin for that matter – yes, quick trivia, humans and dolphins are said to differ by 2% in terms of their DNA composition. Same goes for plants. Their genes can help them withstand cold or grow taller than other plants.

Furthermore, genes can sometimes get mutated, meaning that they start deforming thus causing serious damage which we call genetic diseases. We’ve known that for quite some time now, but it wasn’t until August 2 that the first genetic disease was prevented thanks to CRISPR. We’ll get to that in a few lines.

Us humans have been changing the genes of everything around us since pretty much day one. For instance, taming wolves and training them to live amongst humankind, turned those fierce big wild predators to medium-sized furry pals that only wish to please. Overfeeding chickens and keeping them in suffocating cages all their lives has made those otherwise impressive birds unable to fly or even jump as high as they used to.

But only quite recently did we gain access to the genes of wolves, dogs, chickens and everything on the planet, meaning we can now make changes happen faster and more drastically. Not to mention that ‘messing’ directly with the genes, we can also make changes that would be impossible otherwise.

Now back to our medical miracle story, scientists recently modified the DNA of a human embryo to erase a genetic and lethal heart condition. The method they used is known as CRISPR or Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats. This way they were able to ‘correct’ the wrong gene and help a baby get born strong and healthy.

CRISPR (pronounced crisper) is shorthand for CRISPR-Cas9. CRISPRs are specialized stretches of DNA. The protein Cas9 (or "CRISPR-associated") is an enzyme that acts like a pair of molecular scissors, capable of cutting strands of DNA. Hence, the technology that is being used under the same name, is based on that enzyme which ultimately allows scientists to cut out parts of a DNA (the parts that make up a gene or more) and either stick together the rest two parts or replace the missing one. For a more in-depth explanation on the technology check out Live Science’s post on the subject.

 

Applications

As mentioned above, such technology allows scientists to alter the genes of pretty much everything that breaths, walks, swims, crawls or flies on the planet. And yes, that includes plants. They breathe after all.

As a result, the science of genetic alternation could find applications in medicine, where geneticists could prevent defects, diseases or even death. It could also be used in crops that would be able to produce more food and cost less.

Ethical Concerns

While we may be able to do all those things, it’s not up to anyone to decide individually whether any of those changes should take place. Having heard the news of this relatively new tool, reactions vary from excitement to horror.

In the case of the baby that had a fatal heart disease, we can all agree – more or less – that using CRISPR to save the embryo’s life was the right thing to do. So, agreeing that the technology can and should be used to save human lives, is a good start.

It’s also possible to find a mutual understanding on whether crisper should be used on plants and crops. Of course, issues would arise such as overpopulation and extensive poverty in affected areas. But there are clear precaution measures we could take for those issues, so it’s arguably easier to follow a common strategy.

The real struggle comes when discussing about applying crisper on humans in order to prevent disabilities. Surprisingly many people compare crisper and genetic engineering in general with eugenics, the movement that was used on women that lived in extreme poverty in 1920, in order to prevent them from reproducing.

Alice Wong, director of the Disability Visibility Project moves around on a wheelchair and uses a ventilator to breathe due to a severe neuromuscular disability. If you though that she would be in favour of preventing people from living under the same conditions, you’d be wrong. Alice says

“Calling the usage of CRISPR to eliminate disabled people a form of eugenics is not hyperbolic. Disabled people, regardless of what type, are part of a heterogeneous community with a history, language and culture. When science starts to weed out specific disabilities based on ableist beliefs, a part of disability culture dies. We all lose out when we don’t embrace diversity in all of its forms, even ones that challenge our ideas of health, wellness and normalcy”.

It truly seems that people with disabilities have formed communities with themselves and they feel strong about their bonds with one another. In addition, they don’t even seem to view themselves as disabled. Alice and a number of other people coming from those communities, all agree on that last part. You can check out more statements on Crixeo.

Apart from ‘disabled’ people being against messing with genes, there is a plethora of others who protest to that idea on the grounds that it could become accessible only to the wealthy while it could also increase existing disparities in access to health care and other interventions.

Other concerns include safety and religion. In any case however, it seems that it’s too early for the world to openly discuss the possibility of using CRISPR-Cas9 as a tool in modern medicine.

Perhaps the best place to begin from, if we want to progress, is re-establishing the meaning of ‘disabled’ and agree on whether disabled people would want their children to live under the same circumstances or not. After that, we could come up with a plan to make sure that such a delicate technology does not become a privilege for the rich only.

What are your thoughts on CRISPR? Are you an advocate or do you have your own concerns? Let us know in the comments below!