An international three-day summit starting from 1st December 2015 was held to discuss the bioethics of ‘Human Gene Editing’ in Washington D.C., at the headquarters of the National Academy of Sciences. Top scientists, policymakers, president’s science adviser, historians, futurists etc. were all trying to understand the responsibility of playing God’s craftsmen in altering our very code of life, our genes!
With the introduction of the new ‘CRISPR’ or CRISPR-Cas9 technology as described in a previous article, gene editing has been greatly simplified and can be performed easily in an ordinary molecular biology laboratory. The technology which has developed in the last four years old can potentially be used to weed out genes for diseases such as Alzheimer’s, Huntington’s disease, HIV etc from the embryos before their implantation, thus saving the future generations from their onslaught. It can also be beneficial in gene therapy, stem cell research, increasing the success rate of IVF techniques and so on. It is not only applicable to humans, but can also be extended to plants to boost agriculture. The possibilities are endless!
But scientists fear that CRISPR is controversial and can have unknown consequences which can be hazardous to the human race. Since CRISPR has been successful in altering the genetic material in germ line cells such as egg, sperm and embryonic cells, these changes can be inherited by future generations. During the conference introductory session, the Nobel laureate and summit chair Dr. David Baltimore said “The overriding question is when, if ever, we will want to use gene editing to change human inheritance.” He also felt that “deep and disturbing questions” have arisen whether CRISPR can be used for ‘enhancement or cosmetic’ purposes e.g., designer babies, humans with a higher IQ etc. The question arises as to whether the patients would consent to tinker with their own genetic material.
Francis Collins, director of the US National Institutes of Health debated “But the individuals whose lives are potentially affected by germline manipulation could extend many generations into the future. They can’t give consent to having their genomes altered.” One of the pioneers of CRISPR technology, Jennifer Doudna, a professor of molecular and cell biology at the University of California at Berkeley brushed aside the hype that was created around CRISPR and stated “It will be many years before this technique results in treatments for human diseases. As for human enhancement, that’s also a long way off. “We don’t understand enough yet about the human genome, and how genes interact, and which genes give rise to certain traits to edit for human enhancement today.”
The conference did have some people who wanted to have a broad approach and look at the brighter side of things. An Egyptian historian, Ismail Serageldin of the Library of Alexandria said “We have been playing God ever since we domesticated plants and animals.” Another optimist, Alta Charo, a professor of law and bioethics at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, stated that precautionary measures can be taken which won’t hamper innovation. She said “We have the chance to back up at the end, and change course”.
The scientists are constantly working towards improving the CRISPR technology. A recent publication by scientists from Broad Institute, Harvard University and M.I.T. does demonstrates how CRISPR could be used differently in order to avoid off-target gene snipping effects, thus making it more precise. An exemplary piece of work is by George Church, at Harvard University who simultaneously altered 62 genes in a pig using CRISPR to remove the existing retroviral material in the DNA. This research opens up the possibility of xenotransplanting pig organs into human beings. He mentioned that although several gene therapy trials are underway, CRISPR is a more feasible option for gene editing due to its low cost.
Feng Zhang who is also one of the pioneers of CRISPR said “It’s the tip of the iceberg.” He stressed on the fact that all these editing systems have come from a natural source and using basic biology. “If we look into natural diversity, there are many more systems that will likely prove to be even more powerful.We may be able to take the human editing technology to an even higher level.”
Several debates arose during the conference which will enable the scientific and bioethical community reach a consensus regarding gene editing in humans. Till then we need to sit back and patiently wait to witness whether this transformative technology is going to usher in a new era of super humans or be kept locked in Pandora’s box!
Watch the video here.