Many people might admit to one or two things they would like to change about themselves, be it eye color, commitment issues, height, lactose intolerance, spending habits. And while all of those make up parts of who we are, some of those we didn’t choose for ourselves entirely. Genetically speaking, our parents and our parents parents determined how we look and how healthy we are. Most likely, the aspects of ourselves that we would like to change are not life threatening, but for a family who has a genetic predisposition to heart defects, cancer, and other diseases, gene editing could provide a helpful solution to keep generations from suffering.
Gene engineers and biologists from the US, China, and South Korea successfully edited the genes in human embryos to repair a mutation and remove it from the cells. This is a big deal.
CRISPR, or clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats, occur naturally in bacterial DNA and are short repetitive bits used to protect the bacterium. They also can be used as a gene editing technology that allows researchers to permanently alter cells. Basically, they are little scissors that can go into genes, cut out the part that we don’t want, and replace it with something else.
In the first technique that they used in this study, CRISPR was inserted after the egg had been fertilized. Out of the 54 embryos tested, 36 did not have the mutation, and 13 had a mixture of cells with and without the mutation. In the second technique, researchers added CRISPR and the sperm simultaneously and they found that 42 of the 58 embryos had no mutation in all cells. While the process wasn’t perfect, it was a big step into creating a technology to edit life threatening diseases out of embryos. Additionally, in the future, fertility doctors can create more healthy embryos for in vitro fertilization and this technology can help further research in understanding miscarriages.
A serious ethical challenge comes along with CRISPR technology. Bioethicists are concerned that people will be able to create designer babies. While the technology isn’t being used in clinical trials yet, scientists and ethicists alike must come up with a plan that uses CRISPR wisely. Otherwise, our 9th grade biology class substitute day was a premonition and a Gattaca situation could be in our future.