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Gene editing to alter human DNA

Photo By: teslarati.com

1-15-2019

Courtney Heinnickel, Contributing Writer

Genome editing, or gene editing, is a group of technologies that give scientists the ability to change an organism’s DNA. This allows genetic material to be added, removed, or altered at particular location in the genome.

So far scientists have used it to reduce the severity of genetic deafness in mice, suggesting it could one day be used to treat the same type of hearing loss in people. They’ve created mushrooms that don’t brown easily and edited bone marrow cells in mice to treat sickle-cell anemia. Then, in November of 2018, scientists in China reported that they created the world’s first human babies using CRISPR-edited genes: a pair of twin girls resistant to HIV. This experiment showed what gene editing can provide for the world of science and that the limit can be endless.

The process was mostly a mystery until 2007, when food scientists studying Streptococcus bacteria used to make yogurt showed that these odd clusters actually served a vital function as a part of the bacteria’s immune system. Gene editing itself isn’t anything new. Various techniques to knock out genes have been around for years. What makes CRISPR so revolutionary is that it’s so precise. The Cas9 enzyme, one of the primary tools of the program, mostly goes wherever you tell it to. And it’s incredibly cheap and easy. In the past, it might have cost thousands of dollars and weeks or months of fiddling to alter a gene. Now it might cost just seventy-five dollars and only take a few hours. And this technique has worked on every organism it’s been tried on.

However, a big concern is that while CRISPR is relatively simple and powerful, it isn’t perfect. Scientists have recently learned that the approach to gene editing can inadvertently wipe out and rearrange large swaths of DNA in ways that many imperil human health. That follows recent studies showing that CRISPR-edited cells can inadvertently trigger cancer. That’s why many scientists argue that experiments in humans are premature.

The controversy behind the Chinese experiment on a twin birth involved gene editing for several months to protect the children against HIV as the researcher’s academic work states that he was successful. The goal was to alter strands of DNA to protect against the virus. The issue with what could be viewed as a scientific breakthrough is that it was done without supervision or approval. The academic institute stated that they will be doing an investigation into the ethical concerns that numerous others have expressed. The feedback from most in the scientific community was from those that believe that whatever success occurs, it should be done in a manner that is both ethical and well-documented.

The risks and uncertainties around CRISPR modification are extremely high. Although there are many positives and negatives to this research, the possibilities appear endless and there is continued research to show the benefits to this concept.