“Command” ‘C’… Delete?
Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats… or CRISPR for short is an emerging technology focused on gene editing. Most recently the architects behind this technology won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry. Awarded to Dr. Emmanuelle Charpentier who is now at the Planck Unit for Science of Pathogens in Berlin, as well as Dr. Jennifer Doudna of the University of California, Berkeley. While their scientific breakthroughs are an incredible feat of their own, the two women are also breaking barriers in a field that is primarily dominated by men. For the first time, The Nobel Prize for Chemistry has been awarded to two women. While these two incredible scientists have been highlighted for the award, there have also been numerous other scientists from notable organizations such MIT and Harvard Medical school that have contributed to the technology.
The technology of CRISPR is based on “palindromic repeats” which are pieces of viral DNA. Originally discovered in the DNA of bacteria, palindromic repeats act as a reference point for bacteria when they come across a virus. Think of them as the fingerprint logbook of viruses that bacteria use to protect themselves against these very viruses. Once a virus is identified using the palindromic repeats reference section, the bacteria use Cas9 (an enzyme) to “chop” the virus. CRISPR-Cas9 as the technology is truly named, applies this same method to plant and animal/human DNA. An article by Tina Hesman Saey in Science News for Students, identifies the CRISPR component as a “homing device” and the Cas9 as “molecular scissors”. The use of CRISPR has “biblical implications” and is touted to be the cure to disease across the world. Imagine the impact if medicine could alter the genes of a Type I diabetic and regenerate their pancreas to produce insulin again? Or perhaps change a person’s genetic predisposition to serious infection such as Covid-19? Where does the potential for good even stop…Perhaps right next to where vanity and affluent influences begins?
Can medicine use CRISPR to create bigger, faster and stronger humans? Will these “improvements” be available to everyone or just those who can afford it? Surely, changing the human genome has moral and ethical implications yet to be debated in society, classrooms, and courtrooms across the world. While the technology of CRISPR is far from being able to produce superhumans at this point, these ethical dilemmas may not be as far away as we first thought. A Chinese researcher named He Jiankui has claimed that he brought to term two human embryos which he has claimed to have edited the genes of. He (pronounced Heh) and his research colleagues recruited two couples both of whom had a male partner carrying the HIV virus. Inception using In Vitro Fertalization (IVF) would afford He the opportunity to use CRISPR to edit the cell surface protein called CCR5, a binding point used by the HIV virus to establish infection. His goal? Create an HIV immune child that could then pass down these protective genes to their heirs. He received immense criticism for his experiment and was eventually banished from his scientific community and rescinded his leadership seat at the biotech startup he had founded. The final judgement for his research was leveed when, in 2019 Jiankui was sentenced to 3 years in jail after a Chinese court found monetary conflicts of interest between the researcher, his company and its funding.
While certainly the fallout of Jiankui’s research has placed a spotlight on gene editing and CRISPR-Cas9 technology, there looms an inevitable debate about what to do with pandora’s box once it has been opened. China’s own government has funded intense research into gene editing even as it moves to persecute its pioneering researcher. The idea of “designer babies” has both its appeal and worrisome qualities. Many in the bioethical field of study have said they vehemently oppose the work from being done, and that the ethical guidelines to research and full-scale production of the technology would be next to impossible to regulate. Glenn Cohen, faculty at the Petrie-Flom Center for health policy and bioethics at Harvard Law School said that, “Gene editing comes in many forms and with many consequences.” Certainly it is one thing to edit the genes of a consenting patient to help cure or prevent disease, but the practice of editing or altering the genes of embryos will have lasting impacts as many of those changes will be passed down for generations, thus creating centuries worth of impact if not changing human life forever as we go forward.
While the ethical considerations for the use of CRISPR-Cas9 are endless and will likely be hotly debated by many in academics and the sciences, the financial considerations also remain yet to be discussed. Certainly, the private company who is allowed to develop technology to produce children who are stronger and faster or possess higher IQs will have an enormous windfall on their hands. But does this service deserve to be monetized so that likely only the wealthy can receive its benefits? In a world that is already more divided by socioeconomic class than ever, can we as a race tolerate the implications of the rich becoming “superior humans” while the poor continue to struggle to attain basic amenities in healthcare? The impact of socioeconomic status on health outcomes is one that is well documented but summarized by an article in Health Affairs by Steven Woolf and Paula Bravemen. The article cites a study by Peter Muenniq who through his research, found that income impacts health and quality of life more than tobacco use and obesity.
So, while we debate the ethical and perhaps beneficial impacts of CRISPR-Cas9 technology, we as a society must also confront our own shortcomings as they relate to lifting all people. If we are to allow science and technology to “play God” then we must also consider that we are all God’s creatures.