Today’s technology allows us to modify genes and genomes in order to permanently impact a human’s life. The idea of changing our genetic makeup is tempting for many– including parents–just for physical appearances, avoiding a health risk, or even illegal experimentation. Recently, a controversy occurred when a doctor in China decided to secretly experiment CRISPR gene editing on two unborn twins. While CRISPR (Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeat) is considered a revolutionary source of gene editing that can help cure cancer and other diseases such as cystic fibrosis, many debate if it should be made legal in the United States and other countries because of the current events that have occurred.
CRISPR technology, specifically called CRISPR-Cas9 (Cas 9 is the specific protein used called Protein 9), targets one specific gene that carries a disease such as cystic fibrosis or the Zika virus. CRISPR has the capability of destroying the trait by deriving spaces between the DNA in a specific genome, and with RNA guides, it can destroy an infected gene. This results in a single-chain strand. Not only can it help destroy diseases, but it also can help build the immune system by continually producing beneficial genes.
While CRISPR gene editing seems like it can be the next cure for cancer, there are many drawbacks in the procedures that may cause even more detrimental diseases or defects. The revolutionary technology seems to work effectively; however, some risks accompany it. For example, an incorrect, healthy gene can be cut instead of an infected one, which can cause a different type of cancer or another genetic disorder in the patient. Cancer from the technology is a result if the DNA does not link together into a single strand. Many also question the effectiveness of CRISPR. CRISPR is currently being used to treat sickle cell disease by deleting specific genes that contain the mutation. A clinical study in Stanford University showed that a patient with sickle cell needed to have 70 percent of their red blood cells healthy in order to be declared “symptom-free.” If the patient cannot meet the standard, it will be harder to administer gene modification. However, this threshold is not difficult to meet if healthy red blood cells can be continually produced. Overall, due to these risks, the NIH (National Institutes of Health) has not approved the procedure officially in parts of the United States.
Stanford’s medical professors in the biomedical and bioengineering field feared one thing that accompanied CRISPR technology and gene modification. They feared that society would take the technology and apply it to human embryos and edit unborn babies (also known as designer babies) in order to genetically enhance them and give them “superpowers,” as one doctor described the possible consequences of gene alterations. The several biomedical engineers interviewed reassured that the technology was going to be used on humans already born who only needed genes edited to help cure or prevent diseases. Most of Stanford’s medical professors agreed that performing disease prevention on human embryos and unborn children was completely unnecessary and extremely risky since the procedure was rarely performed. However, in December of 2018, the fear of Stanford scientists came true. He Jiankui, a researcher in China, edited the genes of twin girls (with CRISPR technology) while they were still in the embryos to prevent diseases such as HIV. While presenting his results and experiment to the International Summit On Human Genome Editing, all attendants disagreed with his actions by calling it “unnecessary” and “useless” since the children had virtually no chance of contracting HIV at birth. The outrage then intensified once it was made known that the genes of one of the twins were made more superior than the other (it is not known if this was done intentionally); this was the exact fear of Stanford scientists.
In conclusion, while CRISPR gene-editing is a revolutionary technology that can help save many from life-threatening diseases such as cancer, there are potential risks that could cancel out the benefits. However, due to actions by He Jiankui, researchers and organizations such as the World Health Organization, are now willing to develop legal restrictions of gene-editing procedures such as CRISPR. So far in the controversy, Jiankui has faced extensive backlash and some have considered having him detained since he has permanently affected the lives, genetic composition, and the medical future of the twin girls.
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