Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Where Will the First Genetically Engineered (CRISPR) Baby be Born?

They are meeting in China; they are meeting in the United Kingdom; and they met in the United States last week. Around the world, scientists are gathering to discuss the promise and perils of editing the genome of a human embryo. Should it be allowed — and if so, under what circumstances?

The meetings have been prompted by an explosion of interest in the powerful technology known as CRISPR/Cas9, which has brought unprecedented ease and precision to genetic engineering. This tool, and others like it, could be used to manipulate the DNA of embryos in a dish to learn about the earliest stages of human development. In theory, genome editing could also be used to 'fix' the mutations responsible for heritable human diseases. If done in embryos, this could prevent such diseases from being passed on.

The prospects have prompted widespread concern and discussion among scientists, ethicists and patients. Fears loom that if genome editing becomes acceptable in the clinic to stave off disease, it will inevitably come to be used to introduce, enhance or eliminate traits for non-medical reasons. Ethicists are concerned that unequal access to such technologies could lead to genetic classism. And targeted changes to a person's genome would be passed on for generations, through the germ line (sperm and eggs), fuelling fears that embryo editing could have lasting, unintended consequences.

1 comment:

3de8af9a-85a1-11e4-b784-0b02f2c1f23a said...

CRISPR/Cas9 is such an awesome, versatile, and elegant technology. Who knew the intrinsic anti-viral "immunesystem" of bacteria could be used for so very much. Then again, bacteria did give us the restriction enzymes we've been using for genetic manipulation up to this point. My former lab had an interest in CRISPR since it was first discovered, but validation was a bit of a pickle for our specific uses. The success rate percentage back then in our model was in the teens to low twenties. Now though, we humans have modified the enzyme and system ourselves and gotten much more clever--it's the closest thing to a direct genomic text editor there is.

Someone's going to mess with some human's genome with this thing, as it's so easy. Doesn't even have to be an embryo, it could be introduced just fine to any cell, even in the adult, needing only a vector for distribution throughout one's body; such as say by exosomes or microparticles... or self delivering RNA (that will be turned into Cas9, along with its guide RNA), which is now a thing that works -in vivo- to uniformly infect cells throughout a living individual without eliciting an immune response (forget having to use viruses).

Not only can this be used to target bad genes and literally remove them from the genome, but cleverly coupled to homologous recombination, one can add in genes too. Anywhere in the genome one wants, with absolute specificity.

So, it may not be so much editing embryos that I think we may see first due to this technology, as the ethical issues of that will likely prevent all but rogue elements from trying it (and then implanting and growing up embryos is still not trivial). It's the editing of adults we may well see first; especially in the biohacker crowd, who are already doing some very interesting science well outside the preview of academics.

We're entering a new age in the biofield. No one knows where it could take us.