Last week, the scientific community was shocked by Chinese scientist He Jiankui’s announcement that the world’s first genetically edited babies had been born. The announcement has sparked severe backlash that the practise is dangerous, unethical and simply unnecessary. However, the possibility of using gene editing to tackle debilitating and life-threatening genetic disorders can also be heralded as a revolutionary new tool available, potentially to enhance the health and long life of future generations.
CRISPR are DNA sequences found in prokaryotic organisms that have been used in medicine to detect and cleave specific DNA sites complimentary to the CRISPR sequence. This cleaving of DNA strands allows CRISPR to be used to edit genes by removing and splicing together new DNA sequences.
Jiankui used this technique to create babies that were immune to HIV by using sperm from HIV positive men and ‘washing’ it to remove the virus, and implanting this into a female egg. The subsequent embryo was injected with the CRISPR gene machinery that would prevent HIV in the resulting offspring.
Jiankui has come under fire as many believe that HIV can be controlled more easily and less invasively than pre-birth genetic editing.
Yet, many agree that tackling genetic disorders should be the first port of call for genetic editing, to do what modern medicine hasn’t been able to do and cure humans before they are born.
Several CRISPR trials intend to use the CRISPR mechanism to eliminate cancerous and tumour causing genes. However, in doing so, scientists can edit how the human body responds to immunity, and instead of attacking the cancerous cells, gene editing can lead to the body’s immune system attacking its own healthy cells.
No CRISPR studies have been completed so far that have successfully prevented genetic disorders, however the CRISPR babies have opened up a new discussion, and potentially new trials that could lead to previously uncurable disorders being removed from the genome in the future.