The Future of Gene Editing: Are We the Rough Drafts for Humanity?

Genome editing or gene editing remains one of the most controversial techniques in the medical field.  Although widespread discussion of gene editing is a relatively recent phenomenon, gene editing has been around since the early 1970’s.  Initially, in 1970, a molecular biologist named Hamilton Smith purified Type II restriction enzymes and contributed to the understanding of how DNA preserves itself. [1] The contributions made by Hamilton Smith, and countless other scientists, to the study of DNA functionality paved the way for biotech researcher Dennis Kleid to invent the first genetically engineered medication in 1982 – insulin. [2] After the engineering of medication came the 1986 development of the first recombinant vaccine, developed for Hepatitis B.  This discovery was quickly followed by the creation of the first genetically modified vegetable: corn. [3] Along with these inventions – particularly insulin – came the question: if genetic engineering of a foreign substance is possible, might it be possible to edit genes already contained within human DNA?

By the 1990s, researchers were beginning to examine the human genome to understand how genes function and whether this information could be used to produce new medications or medical procedures.  The first major discovery that led to gene editing’s current popularity was CRISPR (clustered regular interspaced palindromic repeats), a critical finding that allowed scientists to further research the importance of repeating DNA sequences.  The “palindrome repeats” in the CRISPR acronym are copies of virus pieces naturally found in DNA that bacteria use to know what to target when sending enzymes to fight off the virus.  Fundamentally, this novel understanding allows researchers to mimic the bacteria’s activity, and edit genes by targeting a section of DNA and either cutting, adding, or deleting any base in a gene. [4]

While the advancement of gene editing has generally been treated positively by the public, a controversial human gene-editing experiment conducted in China by He Jiankui has been considered a major threat to the continuing development of the field.  Mr.  Jiankui’s experiment began by finding couples who wanted to have a child, but couldn’t because at least one of the parents was HIV-positive.  The goal of his experiment was to use CRISPR to create a mutated gene that would be resistant to HIV, thereby allowing the couple to have a child through in vitro fertilization.  That child would be completely immune to the possibility of contracting HIV from one of the child’s parents.  On November 25, 2018, through a series of YouTube videos, Mr.  Jiankui announced that he was able to successfully modify the genes of a set of twins, born in October, so that the children are HIV resistant.

However, the major concern with this announcement stemmed not from the result of the procedure itself, but from the lack of knowledge and authorization for the experiment.  On January 21, 2019, the Southern University of Science and Technology in China, where Mr.  Jiankui conducted this research, fired Mr.  Jiankui after the university found that Mr.  Jiankui deliberately avoided disclosing his research idea by privately organizing a research team and raising funds without the university’s help. [5]

This experiment has raised international debate and controversy over the ethical standards that should be set for scientific research involving genetic editing.  On July 15, 2018, Senators Dianne Feinstein, Marco Rubio, and Jack Reed introduced a resolution that generally “[c]all[s] for international ethical standards in genome editing research.” More specifically, the senators supported the resolution by pledging their support for the International Commission on the Clinical Use of Human Germline Genome Editing established in May, 2018 by the US National Academy of Medicine, which asks the Secretary of State to help implement this international, ethical consensus.  There are, however, major portions of the scientific community that caution against a complete ban on human gene editing because of its potential to provide new methods of preventing genetic diseases. [6]

It is important to note, however, that the current controversy not only involves the research of gene editing for the purposes of disease prevention, but also implicates the use of gene editing to create so called “designer babies.” On the one hand, supporters argue that research aimed at improving, or creating, the ability to make designer babies a reality should be encouraged because it brings the world closer to a utopian existence.  On the other hand, as illustrated by Aldous Huxley’s novel Brave New World, the utopian society that some may believe “designer babies” can provide, will actually be a discriminatory dystopia that further widens the gap between the rich and the poor. [7] The issue is still hotly debated, and has not been resolved.

Footnotes:

[1] https://www.synthego.com/learn/genome-engineering-history

[2] http://content.cdlib.org/view?docId=hb1t1n98fg&&doc.view=entire_text

[3] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC212689/

[4] https://www.broadinstitute.org/what-broad/areas-focus/project-spotlight/crispr-timeline

[5] https://www.the-scientist.com/news-opinion/claim-of-first-gene-edited-babies-triggers-investigation-65139

[6] https://www.the-scientist.com/news-opinion/us-senators-call-for-international-guidelines-for-germline-editing-66162

[7] https://www.theguardian.com/science/2017/jan/08/designer-babies-ethical-horror-waiting-to-happen

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