A groundbreaking innovation in the life sciences, CRISPR (Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats), or more specifically, “CRISPR/Cas9,” allows scientists to physically edit the genome of an organism. The system is a complex biological technology with a remarkably simple explanation—CRISPR can edit DNA the way a graphics pro edits film, with the same efficiency and precision. As all things involving the fetal stage, CRISPR is embroiled in controversy. But just how potent, and how risky this technology is remains to be seen.
Much of the worthwhile research on CRISPR is being performed at universities, particularly since the politically-charged technology is one that a government or corporation might not readily associate with. Recently at Oregon Health and Science University, US scientists edited the genome of in vitro embryos for the first time outside of China. However, this iteration of the CRISPR testing was much more successful, as an issue preventing full uptake of the editing throughout the embryo was resolved. What does this mean? It means we’re drawing ever closer to a total grip on nature, where we control every factor in the genetic development of our species. Everything from genetic disorders to a predisposition to cancer could theoretically be cut from the human genome, on every level from the individual to the human race.
The implications of such powerful technology are staggering. The completion of this research will raise so many questions, the least of which is the ethical debate about whether achieving a genetically super-fit status warrants inherently risky gene manipulation. Many other ethical debates are to be considered, including the fact that the embryo doesn’t have the ability to consent to its very DNA being altered. And forget about a level playing field—those with greater resources will be able to ensure their children are genetically superior to their peers. This demonstrates why there is such extensive regulation in the field of genetic manipulation. The number of potential risks are very great, including the potential of grievous genetic mutations disseminating into the gene pool, or causing society to lapse into a eugenic frenzy. Yet it is inevitable that man’s scientific conquest will turn in on itself, so the question truly is whether we will be able to control this phenomenon to the extent that the overall effect is beneficent.
A recent article from NBC delineates the positive potential of CRISPR. Among the many feats listed, scientists used CRISPR to completely remove the HIV virus from several living organisms, created entirely new organisms by recombining natural DNA with artificial, and synthesized a sustainable biofuel out of modified algae. Meanwhile, a study involving a collaboration between three major US research centers recently had a breakthrough using CRISPR to fight cancer. In the study, the scientists were able to both damage tumor cells and fix genes that hamper the body’s immune response to cancer. These are just a handful of the results of being able to manipulate nature on its most fundamental strata.
Having this much control over nature is certainly appealing, but it’s still unknown whether the ends justify the means. Just as serious as the benefits of these potential applications, is how grave the risks are. There are so many variables when it comes to DNA that a guaranteed outcome seems difficult or impossible to achieve, at least at the current state of the technology. As it stands, the US government has a needs-must view on genetic manipulation, in that it should only be applied to a human embryo in cases where there is no alternative treatment for a genetic disorder.
Despite the potential danger, humans are highly adaptive and survive nearly any challenge. And with a technology this massive, there are bound to be some errors, especially in its early development. So the issue remains—can CRISPR ultimately improve quality of life, or is it an area of study best left alone? The answer will become apparent as research in CRISPR heads to adult human subjects.