Gene Editing is Nothing to Fear

Read this article in the Indiana Daily Student here....

Gene editing, a method of genetic modification involving changing the sequence of genes, has been around for decades, but it has been dangerous, expensive and difficult for most of its history. But, thanks to the new genome-editing system (known as CRISPR), we can now modify genes much more easily and efficiently. CRISPR (pronounced like “krisper”) is the new tool that has recently shown promising results. CRISPR uses sections of RNA, a modified form of DNA, to target locations in DNA sequences to be added, changed, or removed.

Researchers have already used CRISPR to engineer species of zebrafish[1], flies[2], plants[3], and monkeys[4].  With the ability to target diseases such as AIDS and cancer, this newfound research offers fruitful advances in health. 

In April 2015, Chinese scientists used CRISPR to try to correct a genetic disorder beta thalassemia in non-viable human embryos[5]. Though only a few genes were changed, the research was not published due to ethical issues, The scientists explained, at its current state, CRISPR should not be used in clinical medicine. In light of this, the U.S. National Institute of Health restated its dedication to place heavy restrictions gene editing of human embryos[6]. These restrictions differ from state to state, with some having no restrictions at all. 

But let’s not worry gene editing will harm us. 
Some people are worried about integrity of the future, but we’ve been worried about the future throughout history. We’ve aggrandized fictitious scenarios in which our scientific advancements will “outpace” humanity. Aldous Huxley’s “Brave New World” warned of a totalitarian future of human beings conditioned at the will of the ruling elite while the fantasy film (emphasis on “fantasy”) “Gattaca” told of a sci-fi dystopia of designer babies driven by eugenics. 

Those arguments that we will face dystopian futures are outrageously exaggerated. We’ve been modifying ourselves for a while now, and we’re nowhere near anyone employing gene modification to take over the world. Besides, we have regulations for safety and informed consent of those involved in the research. There’s no need to extrapolate that we will wake up tomorrow as mindless robots, robbed of free will and virtue or, even worse, completely extinct. The fiction will remain fiction.

Scientists from U.S., U.K., and China will be meeting in Washington during the first week of December to discuss the future of gene editing[7]. 

The quote “It has become appallingly obvious that our technology has exceeded our humanity” is often attributed to Einstein (though physics teacher Donald Ripley of the 1995 film “Powder” actually stated it). But humanity has always been, and always will be, miles ahead of science. Gene editing has a lot to offer, and, though we are still understanding its potential, it’s better for us to address issues as they arise instead while bearing our values in mind. We’re still human beings capable of justice. 
"Cursed be the day, abhorred devil, in which you first saw light! Cursed (although I curse myself) be the hands that formed you! You have made me wretched beyond expression."
Science is exciting. Even the protagonist from Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein” feared “more, far more, will I achieve; treading in the steps already marked, I will pioneer a new way, explore unknown powers, and unfold to the world the deepest mysteries of creation” (Shelley 486). Let’s not limit what science has to offer for irrational fears and worries. 

Embrace the future, don’t fear it. Think big. Think careful. We will always move forward with integrity and safety through the exciting world of biomedical research.  

References:
[1] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3686313/
[2] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23709638
[3] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3814374/
[4] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/26032266
[5] http://www.nature.com/news/chinese-scientists-genetically-modify-human-embryos-1.17378
[6] http://www.nature.com/news/nih-reiterates-ban-on-editing-human-embryo-dna-1.17452
[7] http://uk.reuters.com/article/2015/09/14/uk-health-genes-editing-idUKKCN0RE11G20150914
[8] https://www.bostonglobe.com/opinion/2015/07/31/the-moral-imperative-for-bioethics/JmEkoyzlTAu9oQV76JrK9N/story.htm
[9] https://www.newscientist.com/article/dn27166-editing-human-embryos-is-genetics-new-battleground/