The New Frontier in CRISPR Gene Editing Technology : How Far Should We Push the Boundaries of Science?

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Author: Elina Ketabchian

Peer Reviewer: Haania Mahmood

Professional Reviewer: Dr. Niki Sharan

“Right now, genome sequencing is like the internet back in the late 1980s. It was there, but no one was using it. Then the first browser came and commerce started – it was the tipping point. The same thing could happen here. We have been waiting for the right technology tipping point” (Corbyn, 2018). Dr. George Church of Harvard University illustrates the prominence of gene editing as a long-awaited solution to an array of our 21st century problems. Genome editing methodology gives scientists the ability to add, remove or alter genetic material at particular points in the subject’s DNA. The most efficient gene editing method is harnessed in the CRISPR-Cas9 system, which was identified as the fastest, cheapest, most accurate instrument to execute this procedure (“What are Genome Editing”). The value of this technology lies in its medical and scientific innovations rather than its application for human enhancement. These innovations include the treatment of genetic illnesses both corrective and preventive, development of healthier crops as well as the resurrection of valuable extinct species. These benefits far outweigh its application for upgrading individuals in the form of designer babies. Human genome editing is a transformative technology providing medical and scientific innovations for mankind and should be strictly regulated internationally to ensure its appropriate implementation.

Firstly, DNA modification of plants will relieve global hunger through the creation of more adequate food sources for the ever-growing international population. The world population has now exceeded eight billion people and the question presents itself of whether the planet can sustain such numbers presents itself. To address this, scientists from Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory in New York used gene editing technologies to significantly increase the turnout of healthy crops. As specified by Professor Zachary Lippman, “We can now work with the native DNA and enhance what nature has provided, which we believe can help break yield barriers” (Rodríguez-Leal, 2017). With attention to global crises such as the present Coronavirus pandemic, where grocery stores are cleaned out and many vulnerable people lack sufficient resources, an abundance of essential provisions would be invaluable. Genetically edited organisms have the potential to revolutionize the food industry. Genome editing has been introduced as a more fast, economical and precise solution against the numerous flaws of Genetically Modified Organisms. Chiefly, GMO foods consist of produce that has undergone DNA alteration using genetic material from other living matter. Instead, this new procedure conveniently allows producers to improve agricultural yields without inserting genes from foreign entities, eliminating a factor that fueled past backlash against GMOs. Similarly, those who suffer from allergies are unable to consume countless fundamental nutrients; the only solution to their condition seems to be avoidance and supplements. According to Dr. Tim Doran, researcher at Australia’s Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization, his team is using CRISPR to “essentially rewrite those regions of the gene that are recognized by the immune system and cause an allergic reaction” (Fernández, 2020). Scientists are aiming towards sharing the benefits of wheat, nuts, legumes and other produce among millions who are deprived from these nutritious food sources because of allergic reactions. DNA modification of plants is comparatively one of the more simplistic applications of this technology. Notwithstanding, there are more innovative and bold applications that hold huge ecological potential for humankind.

Genome editing is implicated in the resurrection of extinct species to combat current global issues such as climate change. Firstly, Harvard geneticist George Church announced in February 2017 that his team were in the midst of developing an embryo for the extinct woolly mammoth (elephant-mammoth hybrid). In detail, Church and his team are using CRISPR to combine genetic material from the Asian elephant with harvested woolly mammoth DNA recovered in Siberia. The resulting organism would possess characteristics common to the both species, allowing it to sustain itself in the cold climates. Subsequently, this hybrid embryo would be implanted into an elephant in order to give rise to a regenerated population of modernized woolly mammoths (Marcus, 2018). As they have in the past, this species can help fight climate change by pounding the ice and snow in their habitat, allowing the circulation of cool air into the atmosphere. With this intention, biologists are targeting a multitude of animal classes including extinct passenger pigeons. In the 19th century, these birds dominated the conservation and ecology of North American forests. Their extinction was primarily anthropogenic. Using CRISPR technology, researchers plan to introduce genes into its modern-day relative: the band tail pigeon. The first generation of ‘revived’ pigeons is expected to hatch in 2022 (DeMio, 2019).  It becomes clear then that genome editing could certainly enhance biodiversity through state-of-the-art techniques of genetic preservation of both endangered and extinct animals. Provided that experts are able to utilize these recovered organisms, this step will be instrumental for mankind to examine how species came to be. The technique of de-extinction will allow modern-day scientists to gain exceptional insight into the natural resources that were once available to humans while analyzing the process of evolution by comparing these organisms to their modern-day descendants. The elaborated information acquired will eliminate the baffling uncertainty surrounding the origins of the Earth and the universe as a whole.

Although the resurrection of extinct species would prove infinitely rewarding, a more immediate use of CRISPR is in the therapies of genetic diseases. Currently, clinical applications of gene editing have proven highly successful in the treatment and prevention of hereditary illnesses. In particular, there are no outright cures for HIV, which impacts the lives of 86,260 Canadians (Challacombe). To resolve this issue, experts could target the disease in human stem cells using CRISPR. In the preliminary gene editing trials, scientists collected the patients’ blood cells, performed the required genetic edits, and ultimately infused the modified cells back into the individuals (Sample, 2018). Although the efficiency of CRISPR-Cas9 has room for improvement, no adverse effects were found (Xu, 2019). This methodology is an unquestionably promising approach towards curing a multitude of genetic diseases. Equally, this outstanding technology has refined breast cancer treatment. The majority of the cases of this illness are associated with mutations in BRCA1 (breast cancer gene one) and BRCA2 (breast cancer gene two). These genes are responsible for repairing cell damage and maintaining a healthy growth of breast, ovarian and other cells. The cancer risk of those areas increases significantly when BRCA1 or BRCA2 engage in abnormal activities due to hereditary mutations (Harper, 2019). Human genome editing has been revealed to halt tumour growth without exhibiting any evidence of toxicity. A study led by the Vascular Biology Program at Boston Children’s Hospital demonstrates the first successful and vastly reliable procedure of the selective CRISPR system to cease growth of a Triple Negative Breast Cancer malignancy within human cells while protecting normal tissues (“CRISPR Genome Editing Holds,” 2019). In this regard, research studies declare that off-target mutations are only 1.1-2.5% (Hruscha, 2013). This rate can be proportionately compared to the 50% chance of a child of an affected mother to develop breast cancer (“Risk Factors for Breast Cancer”). CRISPR paves the way to allow parents to make an informed choice about birthing healthy children. In addition to the ongoing practical usages of human genome editing, CRISPR bears clear potential for future groundbreaking explorations.

The research industry hugely profits from gene editing as this technology broadens the scope of current knowledge. Laboratory modifications of genetic sequences in the cells of organisms stimulate a better comprehension of their activity. By understanding precisely how specific genes operate, scientists can delve into cutting-edge approaches to boost the quality of life of communities worldwide. For example, in the United States, a new candidate is added to the organ waitlist every ten minutes and twenty people die every day from a lack of compatible organ donations. In response, researchers aim to edit pig organs in order to make these safe choices to transplant into humans (“Facts and Myths about Transplant”). Consequently, pharmaceutical companies have seized on its potential as well. They are using genome editing to create harmless viruses that target and destroy specific bacteria that can otherwise cause severe infections. These could become next-generation antibiotics, with fewer side effects and unprecedented efficacy (Sample, 2018). For instance, scientists in Berlin have succeeded in designing and producing virus shells that mimic the lung cells that flu viruses normally lock onto, thus preventing the invader from causing an infection. Christian Hackenberger, a corresponding author of the study believes “it is a major success that offers entirely new perspectives for the development of innovative antiviral drugs” (Irving, 2020). By the same token, CRISPR can further contribute to environmental protection. Gene editing could improve the production of biofuels by algae. Biofuels are a renewable energy source and pollute significantly less compared to fossil fuels. Using CRISPR-Cas9, companies have created strains of algae that generate twice the amount of lipids, which are then employed to produce biodiesel. With such modifications, their efficiency towards converting CO2 into biofuel is much higher. Synthetic Genomics, a private company working in the field of synthetic biology, is now working with the oil corporation ExxonMobil to attain the target production of 10,000 barrels of algae biofuel per day by 2025 and optimizing its economic viability (Fernández, 2020). Moreover, this research provides cleaner energy compared to non-renewable sources, which can only harm our environment in the future. 

Given all of the immediate and achievable utilizations of CRISPR technology, both the global scientific community and governments must attain a consensus on the ethical and moral implications of gene editing itself. In Canada, inheritable DNA modifications made in the gametes are a criminal offence with a maximum penalty of ten years in jail. At present, Canadian law restricts germline edits and focuses on individual interventions rather than alterations which impact or adjudicate for the progeny (Sengupta, 2020). On the contrary, the UK is engaging in a diametrical approach. For instance, the Human Fertilization and Embryology Authority gave Kathy Niakan and her team of scientists at the Francis Crick Institute in London the approval to edit genes in human embryos in 2016. George Daley, a stem-cell biologist at Boston Children’s Hospital believes that this action will establish a strong precedent, and will hopefully keep the door open for further practice (Callaway, 2016). Unfortunately, this proves that there are evident flaws in Canada’s prioritization. As a modern country and frontrunner in global health care, Canada has an intrinsic duty to play its part in evolving this therapy.Thankfully, some leaders in the Canadian community persist and hope for a change. Accordingly, lawyer and bioethicist Dr. Bartha Knoppers from the Centre of Genomics and Policy at McGill University argues that the laws in place violate Article 27 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights by virtue of obstructing the Canadian populace from their right to “benefit from scientific discoveries” (Sengupta, 2020). These advocates make a compelling argument for genome editing. Vulnerable populations such as the diseased could utilize CRISPR technology if this line of thinking is adhered to. The Nuffield Council on Bioethics suggests that “changing the DNA of a human embryo could be ‘morally permissible’ if it was in the future child’s interests and did not add to the kinds of inequalities that already divide society” (Sample, 2018). Admittedly, parents must not be given the authority or privilege to subjectively decide the destiny of their children. Therefore, the issue lies in where to draw the line between medical treatment and human enhancement. This balance must be enforced by an international task-force in order to guarantee that the abuse of this technique will not be tolerated. However, these ancillary concerns should not shadow the potential of this vital treatment.

Just as distinct regions may stress diverging ethical measures and legality, moral considerations vary among professionals as well. However, society’s prominent moral concerns are revealed to be baseless given our historical and ongoing exploitation of the environment which has triggered many new DNA mutations contributing to a significant increase in illnesses. In fact, the evolution of man is characterized by random genetic mutations caused by the environment. These chance mutations often create defects in newborns which are substantial compared to the minute impact of artificial editing. Director of the Center for Bioethics at Harvard Medical School Robert Truog has examined the validity of moral concerns against gene editing in this regard: “We have been manipulating our environment in so many ways and exposing ourselves to a lot of chemicals that cause unknown changes to our genome. If we are concerned about making precise interventions to cure disease, we should also be interested in that” (Bergman, 2019). As manifested by Dr. Janet Rossant from SickKids Hospital, she is successful in saving nearly thousands of patients from cystic fibrosis yearly and continues to challenge the Canadian government to allow her this freedom using CRISPR (Sengupta, 2020). After all, such brightauthority figures possess the ability to competently weigh the circumstances fairly to ensure the better interest of those they are serving. In reality, scientific breakthroughs can only be made if the negative is taken with the positive and authority figures assume risks for the larger benefit of mankind. Nowadays, there is a demand for higher agricultural productivity, advanced therapeutic procedures and eco-friendly commodities. It is unfair to uniquely pinpoint the flaws of gene editing without conceptualizing to which extent this practice can be innovative. The Canadian government is required to adjust its approach with the intention of  providing experts with the chance to perfect their practice. It is the responsibility of political leaders to cooperate with academic circles in order to satisfy their essential needs which permit them to carry out their tasks.

In conclusion, gene editing is a revolutionary technology which must be controlled fairly and universally. Primarily, this procedure allows mankind to embellish current farming strategies to match the needs of the rapidly growing world population. Meanwhile, de-extinction largely improves the control of natural disasters, which remains one of the most prominent modern-day issues. Furthermore, human genome editing is an invaluable therapeutic operation to eradicate DNA mutations causing chronic illnesses. Finally, the exploration of the CRISPR-Cas9 system carries unique potential that researchers have yet to uncover. Above all, in order to benefit from CRISPR, international authority figures must educate themselves and cooperate with relevant academics before setting appropriate laws and guidelines that respect humanity’s foundational ethical, legal and moral values. Will we disregard this pivotal solution to world hunger? Will we underestimate the potential of CRISPR-Cas9 to provide clean energy? Most importantly, given the current virulent Covid-19 pandemic, are we genuinely going to allow the rejection of a revolutionary tool that could eradicate incurable disease?