After CRISPR babies, what is the future of genetic engineering?

Genetic editing has been in the news following the revelation of the world’s first genetically modified babies. Yet CRISPR offers great potential in the fight against disease.

These twins are NOT genetically modified (Photo: Pxhere)

Successful companies innovate and innovation can bring a lot of good to society, but it may harm as well. The challenge is to innovate in a responsible way: beneficial both to business and society. Last semester, students followed the minor Responsible Innovation and studied the ethics in the innovation process. Part of their assignment was to write an article for a general audience. This is part 3 from 4.

Moral aspects

During their minor in Responsible Innovation, students Florence Warren, Lara van Meurs, Stefano Trombetto, and Willem van Holthe along with their mentor Barry Fitzgerald have investigated the ethical and moral aspects of CRISPR/Cas9 and communication on the topic.

In late November 2018, the world was shocked by news from China that CRISPR/Cas9, a highly advanced genetic editing tool, had been used to make the world’s first genetically modified babies. It transpired that Dr He Jiankui, the principle researcher behind the work, did not have the authorisation or ethical approval to carry out the work, which has since been halted by the Chinese government. His ‘designer babies’ show that CRISPR/Cas9 can polarise opinion in science and society while raising concerns and inciting controversy.

But what is CRISPR/Cas9 and how does it work?

(Photo: Florence Warren)
The workings of CRISPR/Cas9

Think of CRISPR/Cas9 as a biological cut and paste tool for DNA. Equipped with the Cas9 enzyme, which acts like a biological scissors, CRISPR/Cas9 can identify a specific sequence in a genome and use the Cas9 scissors to cut this gene out of the DNA.

Once the gene is removed, you can insert or paste a new gene at the same location. On the other hand, you may just want to disrupt or stop the gene from being expressed as it could cause certain genetic diseases. In the case of He’s designer babies, he used CRISPR/Cas9 to disrupt the CCR5 gene, which in some cases allows HIV to infect a cell. However, the loss of the CCR5 gene can actually make the person more susceptible to other infections and chronic diseases. Crucially, CRISPR/Cas9 is not 100% accurate, which gives the application of CRISPR/Cas9 for human editing serious ethical and moral implications.

The effect on science

On the matter of He’s babies, Professor William Hulburt at Stanford University recently said “I really admonished him not to do this kind of stuff … I think he’s hurt himself, his career … he’s set science back.” This latter concern is serious. He Jiankui used CRISPR/Cas9 on embryos, a very delicate subject for many, which was made possible in part by China’s lenient regulations governing the genetic editing of embryos.

Many have been critical of He’s work while the technique itself has been damaged by negative media coverage. He’s research could bring about stricter regulations globally and potentially limit developments in the field of genetic modification. While much of the CRISPR/Cas9 research community is focusing on sustainable, responsible, and ethical research, further progress may be delayed by He’s radical experiments.

Public opinion

Public opinion, especially in Europe, is that genetic engineering is dangerous. It is unfortunate that it is He’s controversial use of CRISPR/Cas9 that has introduced many people, including the non-scientific community, to the genetic editing tool. This story is just one of many media stories that puts genetic modification under scrutiny.

However, this is not to say that we should not maintain a critical point of view, but we do believe that the media should take a neutral standpoint. CRISPR/Cas9 technology could transform medical treatments for serious diseases but biased media coverage can severely taint public opinion. Therefore, before we start to use these types of technologies, public consensus on its application is essential.

A primary concern for our project group is the overuse of the term GMO (Genetically Modified Organism). The acronym has evolved into a kind of ‘trash’ jargon where any type of modification can be labelled as GMO. However, these modifications vary in type: some can be additional and others subtractive; and their positive or negative effects will also vary. The term Genetically Modified Organism may mystify practices, and perhaps be a root cause in the general negative connotation and confusion. One of the general public’s main concerns is that GMOs are unnatural.

It is imperative to note that 60% of European livestock feed is imported and, more importantly, can be categorised as GMOs. However, the animals that eat these genetically modified feeds are subsequently used to make products that are not categorised as GMOs. Even though the products are safe, it calls into question whether the general public is being made fully aware of the use of genetic editing and CRISPR/Cas9 in modern society. To be bold, baby milk formula could be seen as just as unnatural as ‘CRISPR babies’.

Need for better communication

To conclude, we believe that if the general public is better informed, its view of the genetic modification of humans or other organisms may change. In order to achieve this, we surmise that an appropriate labelling of genetically modified food or any other commercial product would be hugely beneficial. To date, genetically modified products have been generally negatively received by and portrayed to the general public.

In our opinion, this needs to change, as it is essential to have public support on any new technology for that technology to make a constructive contribution to society. CRISPR/Cas9 is a revolutionary tool for DNA editing, and could benefit future food production and healthcare immensely, and while He’s study on ‘designer babies’ is morally and ethically questionable, it should not reflect negatively on the potential of CRISPR/Cas9 for society.

Barry Fitzgerald / lecturer

Editor Redactie

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