Are we ready for a gene editing revolution?

With new gene editing procedures, scientists could alter human DNA and potentially put an end to many genetic diseases
A Chinese scientist edited the DNA of human embryos while avoiding standard procedures and safety testing, which is why he’s now facing criminal charges
A biologist from Columbia University believes gene editing experiments could be conducted without violating ethics
Similarly, a Russian molecular biologist claims to have developed a safe and acceptable way to create gene-edited babies

There’s been a lot of excitement in the scientific and healthcare community caused by recent advances in gene editing technology. Although this technology is relatively new, the market is expected to witness massive growth in the next couple of years. According to the market research and consulting firm Reports and Data, the global gene editing market will reach a value of $10.1 billion by 2026. As the market gets bigger, it will raise many ethical and moral dilemmas. Using gene editing tools, such as CRISPR (Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats), scientists could disrupt human evolutionary processes, which could open the door for the creation of ‘designer babies’. 

 

Gene editing can be a double-edged sword 

Even though gene editing holds promise to end various forms of genetic diseases, some believe it’s actually more harmful than helpful. These concerns came to light after a CRISPR baby scandal was revealed to the world. The incident involved a Chinese scientist who claims to have created “the world’s first genetically modified babies”. He Jiankui relied on CRISPR to edit the DNA of human embryos that were implanted into a woman, and eventually resulted in twin babies. He, who avoided many standard procedures and neglected safety testing, has received a lot of criticism for his work and is now facing criminal charges. He’s goal was to make the babies immune to HIV, but many fear that the genetic variation he tampered with could bring the risk of premature death. A study published in the journal Nature Medicine reveals that people with such a genetic variation are 21 per cent less likely to live until the age of 76. 

Rasmus Nielsen, a professor of integrative biology at the University of California, Berkeley, and the lead on the study, believes that “There are many reasons not to make CRISPR babies at this stage. And one of them is [the] fact that we can’t really predict the effect of the mutations that we induce.”

 

This scientist is proving that gene editing can be done without ethics violation

Unlike He, who clearly didn’t give much thought to ethics during his experiments, another scientist believes that gene editing can be done more ethically. Dieter Egli, a biologist from Columbia University, is conducting gene editing experiments to prevent future babies from inheriting a genetic disorder that can cause a form of blindness, known as retinitis pigmentosa. 

What differentiates Egli’s research from He’s is that he destroys his embryos one day after editing them, and he’s also overseen by a panel of bioethicists and other scientists. As Egli explains, this type of research is essential for later experiments in removing genetic defects. “We can’t just do the editing and then hope everything goes right and implant that into a womb. That’s not responsible.” It will probably take years for Egli to demonstrate his gene editing approach is both safe and effective, but once that happens and his method proves to be successful, it could help many people suffering from retinitis pigmentosa to have children with normal vision.  

 

Russian scientist plans to implant gene-edited embryos into women by the end of 2019

The debate around the responsible application of gene editing has also gained the attention of the Russian molecular biologist Denis Rebrikov, who claims to have developed a safe and acceptable way to create gene-edited babies. If Rebrikov gets government approval for further research, he plans to implant gene-edited embryos into women by the end of 2019. 

Rebrikov’s work shares common ground with He’s research. Just like He, Rebrikov wants to edit the DNA of embryos to protect the babies from inheriting HIV from their parents. The twins created in China have an HIV-positive father, but Rebrikov thinks that the same research is more effective on HIV-positive mothers. As he notes, using gene editing to prevent infection in babies from HIV-positive women “is more justifiable when a woman doesn’t respond to antiviral drugs”, because those babies are at a higher risk of being infected by HIV. What’s more, the same technique could be used to prevent inherited deafness. Rebrikov has already found two women with HIV who are interested in having gene-edited babies. But if he proceeds with the experiment before Russia issues the necessary regulations, Rebrikov could receive the same backlash as He Jiankui received in China. 

Gene editing is being advertised as a potential solution that could one day wipe out all genetic diseases. While experts in the field continue to experiment with gene editing, they’ll need to address ethical concerns surrounding this innovation. Also, governments will need to put more effort into preventing unethical human experimentation and potential misuse of gene editing.

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