Editing genes: Can we? Should we?

The development of CRISPR paves the way for human gene therapy. Calum Stephenson argues that it is our moral duty to see it through.

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It’s the year 2116, and the last person to die from malaria did so fifty years ago. Genetic demons such as Huntington’s disease and cystic fibrosis—whose heritability was a scourge on the psyche of those with a family history—can no longer hold prospective parents hostage. We’ve cracked the problem of world hunger and started bringing species back from extinction. Humanity has never had it better.

This is our future, or at least it could be. All of this is possible through the newest revolution in science, a technology affectionately known as CRISPR, the latest and greatest development in the field of genome editing. It allows the genetic makeup of an organism to be altered by adding, removing or swapping letters in the DNA nucleotide code.

Although similar targeted editing technologies have existed since the 90s, CRISPR is special because of its unrivalled accuracy and speed. Critical to the process, enzyme Cas9 is often described as the pair of ‘molecular scissors’ that snip the DNA at the point of modification. The enzyme is guided by an artificially synthesised RNA molecule to the appropriate sequence in the genome, meaning that researchers can manipulate where Cas9 cuts through changing the code of this guide RNA.

Earlier this year the HFEA, the UKs Fertility authority, approved a request allowing use of CRISPR on human embryos, as long as all embryos are destroyed after seven days of development. This allows study of the earliest stage of human embryonic growth, a major landmark in the history of the technology.

CRISPR has the potential to represent the next step in human evolution. However, there are many who would prefer to remain in the present, or even to turn and run back into the past.

Arguments against genome editing take a primarily ethical route. Critics propose that the concentration of these technologies in developed nations would mean they would only be accessible to the most fortunate of our planet, creating an evolutionary gap in class. Furthermore, eradicating conditions such as Down’s syndrome could devalue the lives of those afflicted, portraying them as less than human. And many feel that power such as this should not be wielded by humans that we would be playing God.

Are these arguments relevant? Yes, of course. But they are at risk of missing the greater point.

Science itself is unprejudiced and unemotional. It is not in itself evil, but it can be used for evil. Therefore genome editing must be monitored on an international scale to ensure the fulfilment of its potential to do an incredible amount of good and minimise undesirable social side-effects.

Those who say we would be playing God should be reminded that we live in an artificial world forged by us for us. Humans created dogs, dams and cities. We’ve eradicated smallpox while harnessing natural energy sources to generate power. We are becoming increasingly more aware of the villains of the future, from climate change and antibiotic resistance to overpopulation, and taking control over our own genetic destiny should be the next stage in our defence.

Every generation has a duty to the next to decrease the suffering it itself faced from genetic diseases, and we have an opportunity to do just that, beginning with CRISPR.