A UK based independent body the Nuffield Council for Bioethics has recently stated that it’s about time we discussed the ethical issues concerning CRISPR, a new gene editing technique, before the matters slip out of our hands.
Gene editing technique is literally mind blowing. By far, it is the biggest genetic breakthrough the human race has witnessed. Gene editing technique literally has the power to transform a human into a “designer product” but so many things can go wrong on so many levels.
Ethical steps need to be taken before the genie gets out of the bottle and creates irreparable damage to the human race. We, the humans, have made such scientific advancements that it’s highly likely we may end up axing our own foot if we did not question and put the ethical full stop to our unstoppable actions.
This is exactly what the Nuffield Council for Bioethics believes. Are we playing God?
John Dupre, professor of philosophy of science at the University of Exeter, and the chair of the Nuffield Council Bioethics working party on genome editing in livestock, says, “It is highly desirable to involve the ethical and regulatory considerations as early as possible in the development of a possible transformational technique. The example that comes to mind really is GM (genetic modification), where there was very little anticipation of the strength of public feeling.”
CRISPR is segments of bacterial DNA which has the ability to edit DNA sequences to produce desirable genetic features. The DNA of a living being contains all the information which allows it to function properly. Any deviations from proper gene sequence results in syndromes like Down Syndrome and diseases like cystic fibrosis, which affects 1% of babies worldwide.
Professor Dupre describes CRISPR as “satnav with scissors” because it can cut DNA strands with pinpoint accuracy on a desired location. But possible consequences in people are to be considered as many are worried that it could lead to unknown and unintended results which would travel down generations, raising a new social issue.
Scientists believe that CRISPR could well be our next-gen tool for disease prevention and food security. Some point out that in the future it could alter DNA sequencing in humans in the embryonic stage to hinder genetic diseases.
Prof Karen Yeyng, chair of the Nuffield Council’s working party on human reproductive applications, says, “In the UK and in many other countries, a long path to legislative change would have to be followed before this could become a treatment option.”
The Nuffield report indicates that preventing inherited diseases and increasing efficiency of food production in agriculture are two applications of CRISPR that require urgent and thorough inspection.
The Potential Power Of CRISPR
CRISPR is bacterial DNA accompanied by Cas9 system, an enzyme, which was co-discovered in 2012 by molecular biologist Professor Jennifer Doudna in the University of California along with Emmanuelle Charpentier. It has been accredited as being a breakthrough technology which can change the lives of everyone on this planet, be it human, animal or plant life.
Most importantly, it is fast, cheap and efficient and this accelerates all genetic related researches from the creation of animal models for human disease research to underline the DNA mutations that cause genetic defects or which can enhance immune protection.
Gene editing technology has already been used to treat cancer and to grant natural immunity to HIV/AIDS patients. The concerns begin when genetic enhancements could be used to upgrade infants to produce designer babies.
Designer Babies – A Beginning To A Transhuman Age?
The ethical concerns of gene editing are ringing alarm bells in the minds of all scientists because it can enhance intellectual, physical and psychological states in human beings, giving these superior humans an unfair edge over other natural humans.
Already scientists in Sweden have started editing healthy human embryos so they can better understand how to treat diseases like Parkinson’s disease, diabetes and blindness.
Although the scientists argued that the research is necessary and nothing wrong has been done, the mere procedure of editing the genomic sequence in perfect human embryos is extremely controversial.
And now other countries have gone forward with human trials to observe the effects of gene editing. China announced it has enrolled lung cancer patients to experimental trials using CRISPR, especially for those who have undergone all conventional cancer treatments with no betterment.
UK has already passed legislations to allow the creation of genetically modified embryos at Francis Crick Institute in London and will enable the scientists to better understand embryology.
As regulations didn’t allow US scientists to carry out such experiments, they travelled to Mexico to carry out a procedure to create a baby using a fertility technique involving three persons.
The genetic material came from the baby’s parental side as well as a donor to overcome the ill effects of a neurological disorder called Leigh Syndrome as the mother had already experienced four miscarriages and the death of two children due to complications.
As the doctors and parents ignored the cautious approach of US regulations by finding a backdoor to Mexico, where there are no regulations regarding such operations, they were criticized that such procedures are irresponsible and unfair, especially when no lives were in danger.
Other critics have suggested that these procedures are too dangerous as the human genomic sequence is extremely complex and there is also the apprehension of these technologies falling in the wrong hands due to poor regulation and control. Other experts have cited these stories as “extremely premature and dangerous” and say that no researcher should be allowed to override the policies against genome editing.
Perhaps the most horrifying example of playing with the human body is the experiments carried out in three separate labs in UK which allowed the creation of human-animal hybrids having physical features of animals but with the cognitive power and consciousness of a human.
These hybrids include an animal egg fertilized by a human sperm; ‘cybrids’, in which a human nucleus is implanted into an animal cell; and ‘chimeras’, in which human cells are mixed with animal embryos.
They have been made possible by technologies like CRISPR and human stem cell manipulations and fertilizing an animal egg with human sperm. A lot of organizations have implied that these procedures are for medical research, but scientists have argued that nothing good can come out of developing new species that have horrifyingly human like features previously only confided in science fiction.
Although most countries have banned the creation of such creatures, scientists argue that developing these hybrids could open new areas of research which would probably be carried out in countries with little to no regulations, or they could be legalized such as they were in UK in the above mentioned example