Since its creation by Nobel Prize winners Jennifer Doudna and Emmanuelle Charpentier, CRISPR has revolutionized life sciences by unlocking the ability to selectively edit genomes. However, it has also led to the creation of the world’s first gene-edited babies. Leading us to question, should CRISPR be used for such controversial purposes?
by Kiersten Ngeow
History was made when CRISPR scientists Jennifer Doudna and Emmanuelle Charpentier won this year’s Nobel Prize in Chemistry on October 7th, 2020. Since its creation, CRISPR has revolutionized humankind. Unlocking the ability to not only selectively edit genomes, but to also create the world’s first gene-edited babies.
But what’s the science behind how CRISPR works?
CRISPR (Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats) is a gene-editing tool that allows scientists to modify genetic information through cutting and editing a specific sequence in the genome. It consists of two components: Cas9 and a guide RNA. When scientists determine which sequence of the genome they would like to edit, they create a guide RNA. This is done by creating a sequence that is based on the complementary bases of the genome sequence that scientists would like to edit. Once this guide RNA is created, it is attached to Cas9; the name of a protein that has the ability to cut a specific strand of DNA, like scissors. In doing so, scientists are able to edit the gene to allow for any changes, even in embryos. But should they?
This is where our Trilemma is presented: should CRISPR be used to genetically edit the embryos of babies or not, and is there a neutral stance?
CRISPR Should be Used to Genetically Edit Embryos:
7.9 million children are born with a serious genetic or partially genetic birth defect. But it doesn’t have to be this way.
If CRISPR was used, these heritable diseases caused by specific genes could be edited. Allowing for millions of children to grow up without these genetic defects. As Vox states, “There are thousands of inheritable diseases caused by mutations to a single gene (like Huntington’s). For many families, genome-editing may be the only way to prevent kids from being born with certain conditions.” If the world used applications such as CRISPR to eliminate the effects of genetic birth defects by specifically changing a sequence in the DNA, imagine the millions of people who could live healthier lives. With the specific disease-causing sequence edited, lifelong changes would be made to benefit their lives. However, the potential CRISPR has to reshape the lives of millions in the world doesn’t stop there.
When Shoukahrat Mitalopov, from Oregon Health & Science University, worked alongside other researchers and scientists to use CRISPR to genetically edit embryos created with a heart disease mutation, they came to a startling conclusion, as stated by Alice Park, a writer for health and medicine at Time, “...had [the embryos] been allowed to develop, they would not contain the heart disease mutation, and they would not pass on the mutation to their offspring.” As a result, the changes that CRISPR can create an embryo, although controversial, can allow for the continuation of defenses against serious genetic diseases for future generations.”
CRISPR Should not be Used to Genetically Edit Embryos:
Using CRISPR to genetically edit embryos is both morally and scientifically dangerous.
Currently, there is too much uncertainty in CRISPR’s effects on its safety. As explained in a Time’s article, “Although CRISPR, for example, gives scientists the most precise molecular scissors possible to snip human DNA exactly where disease-causing genes or mutations might reside [...] It’s also not clear what effect manipulating the human genome by removing or replacing fragments of DNA might have on people’s health — now, or for future generations.” As a result, gene editing on embryos could result in devastating effects on the health of the embryo. Because CRISPR has the ability to edit specific genes in an embryo, the consequences of its unwanted effects could potentially be passed down to future generations. Harming instead of helping the future generation in combating serious inherited diseases.
Morally using CRISPR to genetically edit embryos is also questionable, because embryos are created with genetic defects, then “rescued” by CRISPR of their condition. To put this in perspective, picture this scenario from Stat, a scientific publication, “A doctor creates a cure for a serious and debilitating disease and administers it to a seriously sick child, thus healing her. This doctor saved a life, a morally commendable action. Now imagine that the doctor first injected the disease into the child that he cured. Now his action in its totality could hardly be called curative, for he first created the harm. His seemingly heroic act of healing now has dubious moral value.” As a result of subjecting the embryo to a condition it would otherwise not have, it is morally dubious to genetically engineer embryos using CRISPR.
Using CRISPR to genetically edit embryos raises questions about its benefits and drawbacks. For instance, using CRISPR could revolutionize the health of humanity, through its ability to specifically edit disease-causing genes in the embryo. As a result, these genetic changes could be passed down to future generations, reshaping humanity’s health. However, due to the uncertainties in the unintended effects of CRISPR, doubt remains on its safety for the embryo and its potential future offspring. Thus, leading others to question when more harm is done, than good. Additionally, the methods of creating gene-edited embryos using CRISPR is morally dubious. As embryos deliberately created with genetic defects are “rescued” using CRISPR.
However, when it comes to deciding on the limits to using gene editing for embryos, there is a middle ground: place regulations to restrict, instead of eradicating, gene editing on embryos. As Brookings states about the future of CRISPR, “Since a robust understanding of the science behind CRISPR must still be developed, the most important responsibility that scientists have is to educate, engage, and empower the public and policymakers. Only then will all stakeholders be able to take part in discussions about the ethics of heritable genome editing and resolve the complex ethical issues surrounding CRISPR.”
Therefore, it is crucial for us to establish an open and active dialog, for they have the power to educate and to define necessary safety regulations concerning CRISPR as the technology evolves. However, these discussions are only possible if we uncover more about the science behind CRISPR, and its endless possibilities to redefine the world today.