Gene editing is here and with it, the ability to customize human embryos. For generations, it has been a dream to be able to correct birth defects before a child is born. Now it is possible. Of course, as with new technologies, this one raises questions. While almost everyone would agree with correcting a debilitating or painful condition, what about selecting eye color, height, or sex? Gene editing technology brings these questions front and center.
Genetic engineering involves altering the genetic code. DNA is altered, deleted, or even inserted into the genome of a living organism. With the use of engineered nucleases, most commonly known as molecular scissors, editing the genome has finally become truly effective.
Advancements in Gene Editing
In 2015, four families of engineered nucleases processes have advanced the methods of gene editing.
- Zinc Finger Nucleases (ZFNs)
- Transcription Activator-Like Effector-Based Nucleases (TALEN)
- Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats (CRISPR)
Out of the four, CRISPR/Cas9 is the most innovative. The approach won the 2015 Breakthrough of the Year by Science.
CRISPR Therapeutics says that all of the approaches have been bombarded by numerous challenges. The safety and efficiency of all four have been questioned. The engineered nucleases have not yet developed the degree of control necessary to address a range of genetic changes precisely. But CRISPR offers a new horizon because it has the capacity to correct DNA changes in somatic cells of patients with critical illnesses.
The practice of gene editing is already making a difference in countries like Great Britain and China. This year, America joined the bold and innovative trend that is attracting a great deal of attention from investors and businesses.
Breakthrough in First Human Embryo Edit
Notably, for the first time, the U.S. has edited an embryo. Shoukhrat Mitalipov, an Embryologist at Oregon Health and Science University in Portland, led the research. Mitalipov’s Team conquered the problem of “off-target” and incomplete gene editing that tormented previous attempts. They targeted a gene that is associated with a significant human illness.
According to Jeffrey Kahn, a Bioethicist at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland: “It’s one more step on the path to potential clinical application.”
“This is the kind of research that is essential if we are to know if it’s possible to safely and precisely make corrections in embryos’ DNA to repair disease-causing genes,” said R. Alta Charo, a Legal Scholar, and Bioethicist at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. Notably, Business Insider discussed that the United States experiment was deemed safe because it dodged the process of mosaicism. Mosaicism is when only some cells of an embryo have the intended DNA changes.
The experiment that was led by Mitalipov faced numerous challenges from many quarters. They were questioned about moral and ethical rules. According to both the National Institutes of Health and the U.S. Congress, the U.S. is not going to fund research that makes use of genome editing in order to change embryos. Nonetheless, the team performed their gene-editing experiment in the United States, although they have refused to release details of the experiment’s results. It is not precisely known what they had planned to do or what was accomplished.
Why is Genome Editing Important?
China first attempted gene editing in order to eliminate the cause of a rare blood disorder. The said country has also been doing research with CRISPR technology in order to treat cancer. In spite of the challenges for bioethicists, the CRISPR method has big potential to cure serious diseases.
The technology of CRISPR/Cas9 genome editing has given researchers and scientists an invaluable tool to reach their fullest potential in the field of medicine. The bold method is a ticket for a better and improved future. This innovation will greatly expand opportunities and health outcomes for the next generation.