Did you know, that the moon landing was predicted nearly 100 years before it happened? In the novel ‘From the Earth to the Moon’, Jules Verne predicts a manned mission to the moon, and also prophesied the launch would take place in Florida. Did you know that the idea of the atomic bomb was first mentioned in ‘A World Set Free’ by HG Wells, which also lead Leo Szilard to warn Einstein about the atomic bomb? And did you know that ‘The Wreck of the Titan or Futility’ by Morgan Robertson predicts The Titanic disaster, eerily telling the story of a huge ship called ‘The Titan’ hitting an iceberg and sinking?
Some of these science fiction books feel creepily accurate, but it isn’t because Jules Verne is prophet, or because HG Wells has a time machine. It is simply because authors have been very smart about their predictions, and based them on the needs and goals of the world at the time. It is uncanny to think that authors could make such accurate predictions without some sort of outside help, but science fiction has always had its share of insightful authors and daring predictions.
Some of the boldest predictions have been made about genetic engineering. Books like ‘Brave New World’ or movies like ‘Gattaca’ have envisioned futures where genetic engineering of humans is the norm, and has taken over the world. Although this vision of the future seems far off, a new breakthrough in genetic engineering has brought us one step closer to a world of genetically engineered humans.
From the Spark Page image database
This breakthrough is CRISPR. CRISPR stands for Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats. CRISPR was originally just a system used by prokaryotes as an immune system. The CRISPR system works by taking dna of a virus and adding it to its own DNA, so that when the bacteria is attacked again, it can recognize the virus. The addition of the copy of the virus requires a precise enzyme known as CAS-9. This is the enzyme that will cut the dna and add the virus copy.
Although we knew about this process before, the breakthrough came when we discovered something unusual about the CRISPR system. It’s easily manipulated, and programmable. This means, that we can use the precise cutting and gene addition techniques of CAS9 to add or eliminate any genes we want. We can use this to cure disorders, study out DNA, edit cells, and even sometimes cut viruses right out of our cells.
The Doting Skeptic, The Doting Skeptic, https://thedotingskeptic.wordpress.com/2016/02/06/crispr-cas9-not-just-another-scientific-revolution/
Of course, this explanation is very limited. There is a lot of complicated science behind genetic engineering, and it would take a large amount of articles to fully understand the process. There are already hundreds of articles on the internet made to explain exactly how and why CRISPR works and why it’s so revolutionary.
But I’m not writing this to explain to you how CRISPR works, I’m here to ask the question, what are CRISPR’s limits? And now that we have the technology to edit any gene we want, how ethical is it?
Let’s start with the first question; although we have been experimenting with CRISPR for a while now, we still don’t really know its limits. Its limits were recently tested in a study in China in 2015, where the researchers historically edited a human gamete for the first time. The gene change was very slight, and also notably unsuccessful. But this study still sent shockwaves through the research world.
koya79, Artificial insemination - Stock image, istock, Getty Images, December 21 2013, http://www.istockphoto.com/photo/artificial-insemination-gm459519275-31266186
So how ethical is it to edit genomes? The editing of genes using CRISPR is perfectly ethical, because its use will save thousands of lives and present answers to questions about diseases and disorders researchers have been trying to answer for hundreds of years. Take for instance, cancer. In 2015, the first trial to test genetically modified cancer fighting cells in humans was approved. Another disease that CRISPR will help cure is AIDS. In a recent study, researchers were able to completely eliminate the DNA coding for HIV in human cells. The problem that could be most easily solved by CRISPR is genetic disorders. Simply editing the gene responsible for a disorder has been done as early as 2014 in animals, and has shown massive improvement since then.
What is even crazier than just editing genes, is that we may be able to edit genes that would then be passed onto the next generation. Using CRISPR, we may soon be able to not just cure a genetic disorder for one person, but to eliminate the disorder from an entire family tree.
And this is just the tip of the iceberg, there have been so many breakthroughs from CRISPR, it would be impossible to count. This technology may be in its early stages, but I am all for further research. I believe there is nothing more ethical than creating a cure for diseases that are killing millions.
Although this view should be obvious, there are a lot of people who heavily disagree. In Europe, there have already been anti gene editing groups created. There is a group in France known as the Alliance VITA, which has launched a specifically anti-crispr campaign. But this group is simply not trustworthy, to say the least. What Alliance VITA is most famous for, is opposing abortion and gay marriage in France, notably funding a widely discredited study that outlined the ‘differences’ of children raised by same sex couples. Now that same sex marriage and abortion are legalized in France, the alliance has moved on to another issue: genetic engineering. Unsurprisingly, the Alliance doesn’t have any facts or studies to back up their campaign against genetic engineering.
Alliance VITA, Alliance VITA, https://www.linkedin.com/company/alliance-vita
But this is not a group that needs facts to make claims.
The Alliance VITA’s main point against CRISPR, is that they do not want designer babies. This is a misleading message, because at the moment, CRISPR is being entirely used for curing diseases and genetic disorders, with high success rates. The ‘designer baby’ just doesn’t need to exist yet. The study done in China was very unsuccessful and possibly done to create attention. It seems that this group is stressing the designer baby point to protest CRISPR progress.
To add insult to injury, the Alliance VITA president recently called for an international ban on all embryonic experiments. This is a horrendous idea, because there are studies in the works that use CRISPR to study topics like infertility and genetic disorders by editing embryos. These studies would be hurt by this ban. The worst part about this ban, is that it stops research. This ban wouldn’t just hurt France, but would halt work that could be used in other countries to help people.
"92 groups mobilized in defense to inform the public of the issues posed by CRISPR-Cas9.”, Twitter, Alliance VITA, 24th of May 2016, https://twitter.com/allianceVITA/status/735095487540367360/photo/1
I think the big reason that people and groups are opposed to CRISPR is that they see genetic engineering in the same way science fiction authors did. But even the Chinese study on gametes was to try and cure a genetic disorder, not to create the next generation of genetically improved super children.
It is always ok to be wary of a new technology, but being opposed to one of the most important medical breakthroughs because of a few well written science fiction novels is just wrong.
It’s also important to note, there have not been any credible studies showing dangerous side effects or horrible problems with the technology. But, there are still many people against genetic engineering based on principle.
Don’t let the opposition stand in the way of science. It simply wouldn't be right to let people with diseases and disorders suffer because of cautionary tales. The CRISPR situation is very similar to many other controversial science topics, where the best thing to do is to read up. Don’t make accusations or protests without facts to back you up, because the more you read into it, the more CRISPR’s potential to improve the world becomes apparent.
From the Spark Page image database
Hosman, Elliot. "CGS : Hateful Politics Infiltrate Human Genome Editing Debate In France". Biopoliticaltimes.Org, 2017, http://www.biopoliticaltimes.org/article.php?id=9493.
Kaminski, Rafal et al. "Erratum: Corrigendum: Elimination Of HIV-1 Genomes From Human T-Lymphoid Cells By CRISPR/Cas9 Gene Editing". Scientific Reports, vol 6, no. 1, 2016, Springer Nature, doi:10.1038/srep28213.
Knoepfler, Paul. "Anti-CRISPR Political Groups Emerging In Europe | Genetic Literacy Project". Genetic Literacy Project, 2017, https://www.geneticliteracyproject.org/2016/06/06/anti-crispr-political-groups-emerging-europe/.
Office, Anne. "Curing Disease By Repairing Faulty Genes". MIT News, 2016, http://news.mit.edu/2016/crispr-curing-disease-repairing-faulty-genes-0201.
Reardon, Sara. "First CRISPR Clinical Trial Gets Green Light From US Panel". Nature, 2016, Springer Nature, doi:10.1038/nature.2016.20137.
Romano, Andrea. "15 Sci-Fi Books That Predicted The Future". Mashable, 2014, http://mashable.com/2014/07/23/sci-fi-books-the-future/#DVpQWmTF9Gqr.
Schaefer, Owen. "China May Be The Future Of Genetic Enhancement". Bbc.Com, 2017, http://www.bbc.com/future/story/20160804-china-may-be-the-future-of-genetic-enhancement.