CRISPR was recently cleared for cancer treatment trials. For those who don’t know, CRISPR stands for clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeat. It’s a genetic engineering tool used to edit base pairs of a gene. It can be used for editing DNA meaning it’s possible to eradicate diseases.This is seen as a very controversial subject, seeing as many different people view the practice as immoral. It may seem beneficial, but it also means traits of an embryo can be changed. CRISPR could be used for “harmless” alterations such as hair or eye color. The child can be given traits to make it smarter, stronger, faster, etc. This brings the possibility of a Captain America-esque situation.
Earlier in the year, He Jiankui, a Chinese scientist, claimed to have genetically edited a pair of twins. This caused a wave of uproar with cries of it being “premature” and “ethically problematic.” Jiankui says he altered embryos of seven couples in November of 2018; one known pregnancy resulted from the alterations. In each case, the fathers were HIV positive, and Jiankui was attempting to prevent the babies from contracting HIV later in life. The risks of this experiment are not yet clear seeing as the two girls, Lulu and Nana, are only six months old. While they were born healthy, this doesn’t mean they’re immune to HIV or later health problems that may occur as a result of the experiment.
Before the Lulu and Nana controversy, it was expected gene editing trials wouldn’t take place for another couple years, at the very least. So how did CRISPR get approved? The trial at the University of Pennsylvania was first proposed in 2016, but it took almost two years for it to be approved. It had to get authorization from the FDA before going through additional scrutiny by the National Institutes of Health’s Recombinant DNA Advisory Committee (RAC). The RAC’s job was to review the protocol for the trials. After approval, the first patient for the clinical trial was enrolled in September of 2018.
Scientists think that CRISPR will eventually be used to provide immunity for different diseases and viruses, such as cancer, HIV, and sickle cell anemia. In theory, this sounds like a great possibility, but there are a couple problems with this development. The first issue is that once the population is immune to these diseases and viruses, new ones may form and start to affect us. The second is the cost. When it is finally open to the public, CRISPR will range anywhere from five hundred thousand dollars to a couple million. Lastly, there are moral and ethical complications with this treatment. Many people wonder whether there will be a set line of what can or cannot be edited. Even with a rule of only editing genes or DNA affected by diseases or viruses, people potentially could manipulate this rule to their favor. They could alter their definition of diseases, saying they see ADHD, for example, as a disease. There are many possible problems, but whenever there are new scientific breakthroughs, there are going to be obstacles to overcome.