CRISPR BABIES: Genetically manipulating humans today will impact future research
Genetic Engineering and Molecular Biomedicine belong to the most fascinating and fastest developing areas in Life Sciences and represent key areas of competence for IP2. Therefore our scientific advisors Martin Fabry and Julia Betzin comment on recent developments in these fields.
The CRISPR/Cas system has received a lot attention in recent years. Using relatively easy and cost-effective tools, it is possible to manipulate DNA in living organisms that can be passed on genetically to future generations. This technology offers great potential to cure genetic diseases in humans and is an essential tool for medical research. However, not only is the potential modification of human DNA for medical applications possible, but also the manipulation of genes that impact human traits such as eye colour or overall appearance.
Although we are far away from gathering enough knowledge and experience to safely perform such alterations on humans, the recent advancements of this technology have started a scientific and social discussion whether those experiments are ethically appropriate and safe. The general consensus of the scientific community is that despite great potential of CRISPR/Cas, human experiments should be postponed. This moratorium, also supported by the inventors of the technique, is due to safety concerns. For instance, although the specificity of gene editing with CRSPR/Cas is high, off-target effects at undesired genomic locations are fairly common. Those unintended mutations are inheritable and may be a burden for generations to come. Also, recent studies suggest a link of CRISPR/Cas9 mediated genome editing in cells and susceptibility to cancer (Haapaniemi et al., 2018, Ihry et al., 2018).
Despite the general consensus on a moratorium, recent news revealed that Chinese researcher succeeded in generating the first genetically modified humans (find out more here)
Using CRISPR/Cas they allegedly removed the CCR5 gene in human embryos in an attempt to reduce sensitivity to HIV. Those news, although not properly verified yet, have sparked an outcry of researchers and the public all over the world. The experiments have since been halted by the Chinese government and an investigation started. Nevertheless, the complete disregard of laws and ethics by the scientists reflects a big problem with handling this technology.
Using the CRISPR/Cas system is relatively easy and cheap in comparison to past generations of genome editing tools. This makes genetically engineering humans feasible for scientists all over the world including regions with poor ethical standards. This is a particular concern because those genetically engineered individuals will enter the gene pool and might be able to pass on their genetic mutations or alterations and thus affecting future generations with unknown consequences.
The revealed experiments indicate problems for future research. The scientists demonstrated that the control of the technology by governments or the scientific community is challenging. This will have an impact on the field probably for decades to come especially if the genetically engineered humans are unhealthy or negatively affected by the experiments on their DNA. It is likely that the public perspective of this technique will shift from something that could cure disease to something that is threatening humanity.
This could set strict legal regulations in motion that might prevent or slow down future research and the advance of the technique, which is crucial to approach the previously outlined concerns.