The idea of genetically engineered people sounds like something pulled out of a movie.Imagine a society where people can alter their genome to become superior by modifying, removing or adding information in their genetic codes.Such a future is not so far.Scientists are already a step closer to achieving this reality, raising questions — like are we crossing the ethical line?Will it disadvantage the poor in the society?What are the benefits that come with genome editing?
A genome is the complete set of an organism’s genetic material.It contains all the genetic information that builds up and maintains a body.The human genome carries about 3 billion DNA base pairs, residing in the 23 pairs of chromosomes in the nucleus of cells.
In the year 2015, a new gene editing method called CRISPR was discovered by inventors Jennifer Doudna and Emmanuelle Charpentier.CRISPR stands for ‘clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats.' The gene altering process was immediately dubbed the breakthrough of the year.It enables geneticists to add desired traits or subtract undesired ones from the germline (reproductive) cells.Altering these cells permanently changes the DNA information in the germline, which means that the changes pass on to the next generation.In other words, the DNA change is hereditary.That is why it is so scary.
Scientists around the world have raised concerns that CRISPR may be used to experiment on human embryos.Shortly after its discovery, leading researchers including Doudna called for a worldwide interdiction on using CRISPR to interfere with human DNA in an inheritable way.Due to safety concerns, they advised that more tests be done before trying it on people.
However, sooner than expected, that same year, geneticists at Sun Yat-sen University in China made public their activities in experimenting on human embryos (defective human embryos).They published their findings which claimed that the tests had failed.Their bold move to use CRISPR drew a call for an international conference to discuss the rules of the game.Among the teams that assembled were members of the Royal Society (UK), the National Academy of Medicine and the Chinese Academy of Sciences.The meeting took place at the National Academy of Sciences in Washington DC.There, scientists expressed different opinions.Some believed research should continue because of its potential for solving key genetic related illnesses while the conservative ones thought it was unethical.In the end, they agreed to continue research with a set of guidelines to regulate the technology.
Not long after the convention, UK became the first to give a go ahead to the study through its Human Fertilization and Embryo Authority.They would use human embryos but not allow them to grow beyond 14 days.In other words, no babies were going to be formed.Many people across the UK saw this as a first stride towards legalization of human trials, which created a massive turmoil.
In February this year, a panel of scientists in the U.S.A.backed genetic studies on humans, arguing that germline editing should be embraced in the future instead of being prohibited.Since then, more scientists around the world have accommodated the idea with open minds.Human genome engineering holds towering potential for understanding, treating and preventing many devastating gene related conditions such as Huntington’s disease (HD).HD is an inherited disorder that causes death of brain cells, causing mood and emotional disabilities, loss of cognitive functions, and uncoordinated movement.
Scientists at the University of Washington in Seattle made progress rewriting faulty genes responsible for Duchenne muscular dystrophy (DMD) in a mice study.There are more and more studies reporting progress with various diseases every month.Nonetheless, scientists are yet to get ready for human clinical trials. “We are a long way from clinical applications, but there is no doubt the results of this study are exciting,” said University of Kent geneticist Darren Griffin.One of the possible gambles of altering human genes based on the knowledge available currently is developing new diseases, conditions, or mutations.
Another risk is the impacts it would have on the society.The applications of germline editing are very controversial.For instance, it may be used to boost human abilities beyond our health.This has raised a lot of concerns regarding whether its risks supersede its benefits.If genome editing works, it might be a costly process, meaning it could create a drift in the societal classes — the rich might end up getting designer babies with superior qualities.A majority of people would not fancy living in a world where the already privileged and wealthy use medical procedures to make their children a biological upper hand.
The current progress in Genetic engineering is impressive.However, time is not yet ripe for humans to start benefiting directly from this idea.Perhaps in the future, germline editing will become part of our everyday life.