Crispr the gene-editing technology: scientific triumph or terror?

Crispr the gene-editing technology: scientific triumph or terror?

Do you remember the wonderment Photoshop caused when it was first launched? Wrinkles, lines and limbs could be erased with mere clicks, leaving you looking as youthful and as unworried as a digital milkmaid.

Fast-forward a decade and it’s not just your online appearance that can be altered. Thanks to CRISPR Cas-9, also known as the gene-editing technology, you can alter your actual DNA.

The technology’s potential is enormous. One commentator has described it as: ‘either the key to a number of medical breakthroughs or a terrifying step toward to an unnatural future of altered organisms. Possibly both.’

What is CRISPR?

CRISPR is an acronym for Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats. According to BBC Medical correspondent Fergus Walsh, ‘CRISPR gene editing enables scientists to scan the entire genome, then using [those] molecular scissors, cuts both strands of DNA then delete, insert or repair the code.’

Jennifer Dounda and Emmanuelle Charpentier discovered this when undertaking a research project that looked at how bacteria fight infections. In her TED talk she shared how they discovered that some bacteria have an adaptive immune system in their DNA which allows them to ‘detect viral DNA and destroy it.’

According to Dounda, part of the bacteria’s DNA make-up is a protein called Cas-9. This protein ‘seeks out and degrades the virus-ridden DNA in a very specific way. And it was through our research to understand the activity of this protein, Cas9, that we realised that we could harness its function as a genetic engineering technology.’

What is also exciting about this technology is that as it develops, it will become fast, easy and cheap to modify genes.

Where is the science at?

While the potential for this technology might be transformative, the reality is the science is nascent. Part of the hold-up is from Dounda’s team, who are very aware of the ethical issues that it raises. She acknowledges that the ramifications of this technology need to be thoroughly examined before they get to a clinical trial level:

'This [technology] raises a number of ethical questions that we have to carefully consider, and this is why I and my colleagues have called for a global pause in any clinical application of the CRISPR technology in human embryos, to give us time to really consider all of the various implications of doing so.'

She envisages that there may be actual therapeutic applications within the next decade.

The hold-up also has a more commercial element to it as well. As Dounda and Charpentier were publishing their initial findings, MIT researcher Feng Zhang had been simultaneously been undertaking research on the same subject. As the battle for the CRISPR Cas-9 patent is currently being played out in the courtroom, (a decision which has billions of dollars at stake for the parties involved) Zhang is undertaking research into the healthcare aspects of the technology. At present his lab research is focused on how the burgeoning technology can be leveraged to understand mental health issues such as schizophrenia, Alzheimer's and autism. His approach is somewhat different to Dounda’s: ‘Doudna's team had cut DNA floating in a test tube, but to Zhang, if you weren't working with human cells, you were just screwing around.’  

What is CRISPR’s potential?

While the attribution of this technology may be unclear, the initial research has been promising.

Wired scientists have already seen success, ‘researchers have already reversed mutations that cause blindness, stopped cancer cells from multiplying, and made cells impervious to the virus that causes AIDS.’

The technology also has environmental, social and agricultural potential. Chinese researchers have been experimenting with wheat, rendering it impervious to mildew. Others have been looking at how they can cultivate drought-resistant crops to encourage sustainable practices and to improve crop yield.

What are the concerns of CRISPR?

While there are many potentially positive outcomes, as with all technology, there are concerns about the darker implications. The most common concern raised is how CRISPR could give rise to an escalated type of biowarfare. There are also reproductive and ethical ramifications to be considered; whether the technology could give rise to a race of superhumans, creating Gattaca-esque social tension.

However, as Dounda has expressed above, the scientific political communities understand the need to go slowly and create provisos and safeguards for all the potential scenarios of this technology. If citizens want to reap the rewards of this exciting technology, then now is the time to be planning for how it can be implemented safely for the benefit of the many. If you would like to know more about exciting new technology developments in healthcare, register for Digital Health 2017 @ CeBIT today.