Although gene editing has been undergoing research since the 1980’s, only recently has it garnered significant attention. The advent of cheap and efficient gene editing techniques, such as CRISPR (Clustered Regularly Inter-Spaced Palindromic Repeats), has propelled the once theoretical concept into practical applications. The CRISPR-Cas9 tool enables scientists to make precise genetic edits – by locating an exact DNA sequence within a gene, removing it using the Cas9 enzyme, and pasting a new DNA sequence in its place. It’s one of the many cutting-edge gene-editing techniques that have allowed biologists to play God – modifying genes in order to either cure people of pre-existing conditions or provide them with enhanced features. A lack of regulation regarding this subject has, however, raised a few eyebrows regarding the ethical limitations of it.
First and foremost, it’s imperative to look at the potential benefits of gene-editing. The modern-day techniques can be applied to the embryo to change the genetic lineup of an individual even before they are born. Scientists have used CRISPR-Cas9 to change the genetic mutation responsible for often fatal hereditary heart condition. They are also in the process of modifying pig organs such that they can be used in a human transplant. Gene-editing can also boost gene therapy by inserting healthy genes into cells to cure diseases caused by faulty ones.
On 26th November, He Jiankui, a scientist at the Southern University of Science and Technology in Shenzhen, China has claimed to have created the first CRISPR babies. His team performed ‘gene therapy” on embryos created from their parents’ sperm and eggs, with the notion of protecting the children from the human immunodeficiency virus, HIV, which causes AIDS. As the children’s father is HIV positive, the probability of the children also having the condition is reduced drastically by the technique.
However, many have questioned such claims, along with if Jiankui followed ethical guidelines while injecting the IVF embryo with CRISPR. Jennifer Doudma, a biochemist at the University of California, Berkeley and one of the founders of CRISPR, stated that, “This work is a break from the cautious and transparent approach of the global scientific community’s application of CRISPR-Cas9 for human germline editing.”
While such experiments have attempted to create designer babies that don’t have a fatal pre-existing condition, the simplicity of using such kits can also be used to enhance the features of a child. Every parent wants their child to be smarter, faster and stronger than the rest. Naturally, they would want the DNA sequence responsible for any physical or mental ‘hindrance’ to be cut out and replaced by a better one. Biohackers have begun to manufacture and sell Do-It-Yourself (DIY) CRISPR kits for a meager price in the market. The easy availability of such a delicate biological operation has raised the question of their use in an ethical environment.
In 2017, CRISPR also received a major advancement. Now, instead of editing a whole gene, such techniques can edit only a “base-pair”. The technology is advancing at a rapid rate, and its prevalence is increasing with the availability of DIY kits. In order to mitigate any risk concerning the application of CRISPR, there is a need for rules and regulations. A set of ethical guidelines should be followed by CRISPR users and a lack of such can create a huge diaspora in modern human civilization.