This is the third part of our article series about the amazing story of CRISPR. In our first article, you could read about the history how CRISPR/CAS9 was discovered and how the process of genome editing works. In the second piece you could familiarize with the CRISPR therapies and solutions available today. Now, let me show you where CRISPR could get us in the future. It is truly mind-blowing.
If such examples as the complete eradication of malaria, the possible end of cancer and the treatment of deadly genetic diseases are the most likely scenarios happening very soon, imagine the scope of results we might get to. Perfect humans? Eternal youth and beauty? Living for hundreds of years?
All of it is possible if we open the door of genome editing. But we have the utmost responsibility not to turn it into Pandora’s Box and let various monsters created through the inobservance of bioethical questions into the world.
1) We start “small”: let’s treat HIV
HIV inserts its DNA into the genome of the host, and while it can lay dormant for years and certain medical treatments can moderate its effects, there is no way to make the virus permanently inactive. In 2015, scientists used CRISPR to cut HIV cells out of living cells of patients in a laboratory – proving that it is possible. This year, they carried out a lab experiment with rats which had HIV in 99 per cent of their cells. By injecting CRISPR into the rats’ tails, they were able to remove 48 per cent of the virus from the DNA of their body cells. Although the experiments are still in their infancy, it seems that CRISPR could mean the ultimate solution to cure HIV and ultimately AIDS.
2) Drugs of the New Age
CRISPR/CAS9 could also mean a revolution for the pharmaceutical industry. New types of drugs may be developed for treating diseases which were previously thought deadly and incurable. Pharmaceutical giant Bayer AG and start-up CRISPR Therapeutics recently announced a $300 million joint venture to develop CRISPR-based drugs to treat heart disease, blood disorders, and blindness. Their cooperation could mean the dawn of a new drug development era focusing more on genetic methods. And who knows? Maybe in a couple of decades, it will be possible to treat cancer or AIDS through a pill or an injection.
3) The Arrival of Superplants
If you think about GMOs and the Flavr Savr Tomato, plants are somehow always in the first row when it comes to genetic modification. It is no different with CRISPR. Researchers are currently experimenting with ways to improve crop disease resistance and environmental stress tolerance using the gene-editing tool. A research team from Rutgers is working on a long-term project to genetically modify wine grapes and turfgrass in such a way that the methods can be implemented in a variety of other crops. Imagine having jasmines blossoming the whole year in Scandinavian countries or harvest pumpkins in February. We have unlimited possibilities…
4) Boosting Human Intelligence?
In the era of smart phones, smart homes, smart cars and artificial intelligence – which is feared by many since it might be able to take over the world (Stephen Hawking even said that the development of full artificial intelligence could spell the end of the human race. Elon Musk agreed) –, it seems to be a smart idea to try to boost the intelligence of actual people as well.
A recent study identified 74 genetic variants—spelling mistakes in single nucleotides in the six billion letter human genome—which can be used to predict nearly 20 percent of the variation in school years completed, a quantitative trait of fortitude which is correlated to general intelligence, and which you can learn about by sequencing your own genome.
“In my opinion, CRISPR could in principle be used to boost the expected intelligence of an embryo by a considerable amount,” said James J. Lee, a researcher at University of Minnesota, one of the authors of that study. So, caution is necessary here. And not only because some will – rightfully! – think that intelligence is more than couple of genes in the right sequence. What about creative intelligence? What about the randomly wandering thoughts? What about the ability to produce memories? All these questions need to be studied, and it is still not sure whether they can be studied from the point of view of genetics – yet.
5) Editing humans?
And here we are. We arrived at the most problematic issue of genetic editing. To the human being and to what a lot of people consider already as the territory of the Gods. The editing of the genome of humans.
There are tremendous bioethical issues about human genetic editing starting from the pre-selection of embryos who could live and who will be condemned to death until the effective designing of babies. But I have to tell you that it is not a distant possibility in the future, it is already happening.
During pregnancy, there are lots of tests pregnant women go through. Many of them examine whether the foetus has any deadly genetic disease. For example, if the little embryo is diagnosed with Down-syndrome, the mother could decide to terminate the pregnancy. And in most cases, they do so.
Thus, whether you like it or not, whether you fee adverse and negative about it or not – it is already happening.
Moreover, researchers at the Francis Crick Institute in London want to genetically modify human embryos to learn more about the earliest stages of human life and potentially reduce the number of miscarriages.
6) Designing babies?
Imagine the following scenario: you and your wife decided to have a kid. After going to the bedroom and having done the usual procedure, you call a genetic designer and ask for a personal appointment. Then you sit down at the kitchen table and start to talk about how your kid should look like and what traits should he or she have. You decide you would like to have a nice and healthy boy with plenty of blond hair (no, not like Donald Trumps’). He should be very intelligent, he should have great eye-sight, and he should have a great immune system, be muscular, be tall and have a nice smile.
And imagine a darker scenario. What if with the advancement of biotechnology, in a fully controlled society, a leader decides about the biological “casts” of people – producing humans who are working as blue-collar laborers, producing humans who are white-collar laborers or producing killing-machines – genetically modified soldiers with the inability to empathy or free will.
Are we far away from this? Should we be far away from this?
The gene-editing of embryos carries huge risks as CRISPR can accidentally edit genes that have a DNA sequence similar to its target, and cause irreversible mutations in the embryos. It is a scary and very alarming outcome, and we should definitely do everything in our power to avoid such scenarios.
7) Eternal Youth and Living Forever?
And what happens, if we are able to eradicate diseases and to design perfectly healthy humans? What if we also find the gene which is responsible for aging and we will be able to cut it out with the help of CRISPR? Are we going to live for two- or three hundred years and die looking like our 22-year-old selves?
How could we deal with such a scenario? Can we even deal with the possibility that it is already imaginable with the recent scientific method? It would completely change our perception about our species, our relation to nature – even life and death itself. And what if something goes wrong? What are the consequences to such a scenario? If we cut malaria genes out of mosquitoes, what if we kill them by accident? What will bats eat then? And what if something bigger happens? What if we condemn humanity to death?
Can we even think about such issues buried in our little universes?
Where are our finest philosophers to offer some insight about it? Because we not only need science, but also philosophy, religion and ethics to keep up with the rapid developments and offer advice.
What Can We and What Should We Do?
When the Chinese researchers reported using CRISPR to edit the genome of human embryos in April 2015, the world’s foremost geneticists, biotechnologists, and bioethicists decided to gather and discuss the issue with immense significance. They gathered in Washington to discuss the future of gene editing, agreed that basic research should progress but there should be a moratorium on editing human embryos on pregnancies.
But CRISPR itself cannot be stopped from other types of research apparently. Couple of months after the Chinese experiments were reported, in February 2016, UK scientists have been allowed by the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA) to use the CRISPR on unused human embryos. In June, 2016 it was reported that a United States advisory committee has green-lighted the use of CRISPR in human trials.
Genome editing did not appear overnight. Eric Meslin, the director of the Indiana University Center for Bioethics reminded here that we’ve been talking about manipulation of the genome for 40 years, since the 70s. There was steps like the sheep clone Dolly, patients dying from gene therapy treatments, the stem cell debate of the early 2000s—all of these echoes are present whenever the ethics of CRISPR come up, he added.
Bioethicists usually strike a balance between regulation and permission—too much permission, and researchers can ignore societal constructs of morality; too much restriction means progress slows down, and scientists start to operate outside that agreement in shady, grey cellars financed by evil-minded billionaires. They believe that bioethicists need to be more–not less–involved in the conversation about CRISPR. However, the most important issue is that for technologies that have the capacity to disrupt the world of research and medicine as we know it, everyone–researchers, politicians, sociologists, theologians, average citizens all over the world–must be drawn in to the discussion.
David Lemberg, the founding editor of Bioethics Today and associate faculty professor in the Department of Community Health at National University says that the role for bioethicists—and of all stakeholders representing numerous interest groups—is to oversee research and to limit its conduct based on the precautionary principle.
“Just because we can do a thing does not mean we should do the thing”, he added. And I completely agree with his statement. Although we need to facilitate the advance of such research methods in curing diseases, but an army of bioethicists are needed to make sure we keep human values we are meant to keep.
And if you want to see what the topic is about in a nutshell, check out this awesome video, we were referring to through the whole time: