Impending Use of Gene Editing Brings Controversy

22 Feb

According to a recent report from the National Academies of Sciences, germline editing for clinical trials of heritable diseases could one day be permitted for serious conditions. However, only non-heritable clinical trials to treat or prevent diseases and disabilities are permitted at this time.

Editing the genetic makeup of human embryos is now coming into consideration thanks to new opportunities created by tools like CRISPR. These technologies make genome editing–in the embryo, egg, or sperm–a possibility in the near future.

Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats, “CRISPR,” can edit specific locations of DNA. This technology will one day help to address health issues passed through genetic material.

The report gives a set of criteria that each trial must fulfill: (1) there must be no other rational alternatives, (2) editing must only be of genes that cause or predispose a serious disease or condition, (3) there must be credible data on risks and health benefits, (4) rigorous oversight of embryos, (5) plans for multigenerational follow-up, (6) constant reassessment of health and societal benefits, and (7) oversight to prevent extension of editing to uses other than preventing the disease or condition.

As Science Magazine pointed out, the criteria are vague and open to interpretation. Academies are suspected to organize an international conference in China later this year to further discuss the details.

Heritable genome editing is prohibited in the United States, due to the banning of federal funding to the Food and Drug Administration for use on gene modification. Although discouraged in some countries, this practice has been tested in others.

Attempting to modify a fatal blood disorder, a team of researchers in China edited the genomes of non-viable human embryos using CRISPR in the spring of 2015. 71 of the 86 injected embryos survived, however only 28 were successfully sliced by the technology, with a small fraction of those holding the genetic replacement. The team stopped researching due to the immaturity of the technology, and much controversy sparked after the trial.

The technology has grown since then, but the same concerns still exist today.

Many critiques of genome editing fear the practices will be used for human modification to create “designer babies,” or the act of embryos receiving desirable traits.

Because the gene will be passed on to future generations, ethical questions are being raised about germline gene modification. There is also no research to say how the modified gene will effect those generations in the long run.

Although I understand and share the same controversial concerns, I think genome editing will eventually be beneficial. It could prove to be useful by preventing diseases and conditions, like cystic fibrosis, that too many people in the world suffer and die from. The technique is still in the beginning stages and a lot more research must be done, however assuming all of the kinks are solved and researchers are sure future generations will be safe, the process should help many people.

With the possibility of disease prevention and saving thousands and thousands of lives, research on gene modification must continue.

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