Changing The Future

iStock_000018006045_DNA genesOne small step for man, one giant leap for mankind. – Neil Armstrong. It’s amazing what can change the course of history forever. With the lunar landing came more science, technology and knowledge of outer space. Science can make us or break us. What we know about the human body and how it works is helpful, but altering it in ways much more than superficially (plastic surgery/hair dying), seems like we’re taking it too far. However, how far is too far when we’re talk about curing diseases that have plagued the human race for centuries? Should we do it? Seems like a no brainer.  We shouldn’t play God because it could be dangerous, but if we don’t even try, who knows what we could miss out on.

Once again history was made; in late July a leaked study began circulating on journal outlets and on the 2nd of August the experiments were properly published; Correction of a pathogenic gene mutation in human embryos. This study was a medical marvel. Scientists from all over the world took part in the study, America, South Korea and China, but a lab in Oregon, Oregon Health and Science University lead by Shoukhrat Mitalipov and his team, conducted the procedure. Scientist took a look at the disease hypertrophic cardiomyopathy a condition that causes the heart muscle to thicken causing blood to not pump properly. This disease is quite common, affecting men and women equally, it happens to 1 in 500 people, and can go by undetected, thereby making it extremely fatal. This disease is also hereditary, meaning it could be passed down genetically to one’s children.

Once the gene for the disease was identified, the scientists then concluded that they could use a gene editing device called a CRISPR (Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats) to conduct their research. Formally known as CRISPR-Cas9, it is the tool that splits DNA allowing the enzyme (Cas9) to guide itself to the targeted “diseased” DNA and modify it. This means that the enzyme is helping the RNA repair itself to create a healthy DNA

The procedure began by having a sperm that carried the gene for cardiomyopathy and a healthy egg.  At the time of fertilization, they used the CRISPR-Cas9 allowing the enzymes to act as soon as fertilization began. They tested a number of embryos and overall 72% went on to healthy cell division; the embryos were destroyed days after, but Mitalipov, conducting the experiment, believed that if allowed to develop, the babies would be disease free and not carry on the gene. Even with the 28% that failed to completely repair the gene, it still erased it, meaning it was no longer in the DNA. What this study ultimately did was to take a diseased gene and repair it to a healthy one as soon as fertilization began, creating a successful embryo free of that disease.

After the study was published, the world was in shock, as were most scientists observing and reviewing the finds. Stem cell scientist Paul Knoepfler of the University of California, Davis stated “Overall, this is a very cool and surprising result, especially that it worked as well as it did.” There have been studies done in the past with the altering of genes, but none have proven to be as successful as this one. Dean of Harvard Medical School, George Daley, commented that It’s a pretty exciting piece of science…It’s a technical tour de force. It’s really remarkable.

People began thinking of the future and what we can expect next from the science, but many people think we need to stop the research in its tracks. UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) called for (but not granted) a ban of gene editing, prohibiting it until “(i) the relevant safety and efficacy issues have been resolved, based on appropriate understanding and balancing of risks, potential benefits, and alternatives, and (ii) there is broad societal consensus about the appropriateness of the proposed application.”

However, most scientists believe that we just need to be careful. Daley also stated “The question now remains should we—and for what purposes and should there be certain applications that are allowed and others that are prohibited?” So that’s the main question, “should we do it?” Richard Hynes, a cancer researcher said after reviewing the journal “We’ve always said in the past gene editing shouldn’t be done, mostly because it couldn’t be done safely…That’s still true, but now it looks like it’s going to be done safely soon.” Even Mitalipov himself said “I think we have room to improve,” which is true. They just conducted the study, so it would only be natural that there are improvements and other areas that need to be looked at before this procedure goes anywhere near producing real humans, but we should allow the progress to take place.

The ethical debate on whether testing like this should be done on humans has been going on since the CRISPR was first used in a similar 2015 China study. We’re talking about the human species, which is why I can understand it being a delicate thing to alter. The research was targeted to treat the gene for a heart condition, but the possibilities for other diseases to be cured could be endless. Things like Cancer, HIV, some types of blindness could be potentially cured with the evolution of genome editing. Of course, there are the thoughts that destroying one disease could open up the body to different types of body mutations, causing a potentially deadlier disease. However, those are all hypotheticals, and we will never know for sure until we continue to test the research and develop new technologies.

Also on debate, opinion blogs and news outlets are all buzzing with talks of “designer babies.” It comes as no surprise, with movies like GATTACA and My Sister’s Keeper, that ideas of gene altering for the sake of betterment have been around before the technology even existed. Jessica Berg, a law and bioethics professor at the Case Western Reserve University Schools of Law and Medicine in Ohio commented on this idea of “designer babies” by saying “Complex traits — like intelligence, athletic performance, height, eye color and skin color — are dictated by dozens if not hundreds of genes. Right now, scientists can barely edit one gene at a time.

While we are a ways away from thinking about editing or modifying human babies’ genomes, it could be a big deal for agricultural crops. This research would help the development of foods, such as browning of fruits and vegetables, or using harmful pesticides. In 2016, there have been a number of crops that have already been modified, mushrooms, potatoes and soybeans have been the firsts. Researchers claim that consumers are already protesting for no GMO’s (Genetically Modified Organisms), however these foods aren’t being modified, they’re correcting them before they even develop into whole fruits and vegetables. Richard Mulligan, Professor of Genetics at Harvard Medical School, and Director of the Harvard Gene Therapy Initiative, said he doesn’t think people would see much difference between gene-edited and genetically modified. “It’s hard to see that the public would see the difference.” This is why we need people to be educated and understand what is really behind the science, then it won’t seem so scary or so far-fetched.

With genome editing becoming a reality, it’s time to have a conversation about where we, as a society, want to see this science develop. Cutting off the research just as it’s progressing doesn’t seem fair to the people who got us to this point of medicine or to deny people the opportunity of optimal health in the future. With most scientists taking a cautionary approach, but still willing to move forward, I think the public should feel the same. It will be a long time before any of the experiments and research hit the actual market for trial, so it’s best for communities to discuss and develop plans to use and not abuse our new found discoveries.

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One Comment to “Changing The Future”

  1. I loved reading your article though I have to admit it does scare me a little to realize how far we have come in manipulating life itself. I agree with you that this research should continue. At this stage, we are still learning and researching and it’d be a shame to pull back from gaining knowledge because of the fear of how this knowledge might be used in the future. And if there is a possibility to cure diseases and maybe even cancer then why not? This new research does open up issue about ‘playing God’ and manipulating life, but because of how this research is still in the early stages I’d say to cross that bridge when we come to it.

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