CRISPR technology: what are the ethical concerns?
What is CRISPR?
CRISPR/Cas9 (clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats) is a new technology that allows us to edit genes inside organisms. The technology in combination with the Cas9 protein has given the scientist a kind of precision never available before, to alter the genes of human beings.
CRISPR (pronounced like crisper) can be used on animals as well, but the accuracy is as high as the scientists can use it on human beings to make cuts in the gene. This has never been possible before.
Scientists can use the technology to cure a wide range of diseases relevant to DNA. It can provide revolutionary treatments for cancer, and also HIV disease.
How does CRISPR work?
In simple terms, CRISPR slices out parts of DNA and replaces it with a new, updated sequence of DNA. This allows modifying the mutant genes and curing the genetic diseases inherited from one generation to another.
The ethical concerns
The ethical concerns in the field of biotechnologies have been so controversial recently. Using gene editing on human beings and the related ethical outcomes have raised probably the biggest debate in this field of technology.
The most essential capability of gene editing technologies such as CRISPR is that they can be used to cure heartbreaking and debilitating diseases. As a matter of fact, gene editing can be used to cure any disease that can be inherited, such as Huntington’s disease or some forms of cancer. This advantage not only can save a myriad of lives, but it can also shrink down huge financial and emotional burden over the families coping with the disease.
Sadly today, the real truth is we do not know enough about gene therapy. To put it in other words, CRISPR can cure some diseases, but it may also lead to mutations that can be transmitted to others down the line.
Most gene-editing procedures occur in somatic cells, not on germline cells. Germline cells are egg and sperm cells, and the changes in them can be inherited by future generations. If CRISPR is used to edit embryos or egg and sperm cells, the future generations are going to be affected as well. This is the biggest ethical concern regarding gene editing. As a result, the entire human species can be born with signs of gene modification procedures.
Another place where the puzzle further gets complicated is where to draw the line with gene editing. If the use of gene editing to cure diseases become commonplace, don’t we ultimately use it for aesthetic or non-illness purposes? Just think about it: parents will have the opportunity to choose the eye or hair color of their baby, or even more, how tall or strong he or she will be. In other words, it will be nothing strange to see “baby designers” around the world.
What happens if edits go in the wrong place? What if some cells carry the edit, but others do not? Researchers agree that until germline gene editing is safe, it should never be allowed in clinical intentions. The risk cannot be justified by the potential advantages.
Furthermore, there is much that still scientists do not know about CRISPR. For instance, some people’s immune system may react negatively to the technology.
Some people argue that it is impossible to define an official consent for germline therapy. That is because the edits are going to be transmitted to the embryo and future generations as well. On the other hand, the counterargument is that parents already make many changes to the future of their children too.
Justice and equality
This is true for many other technologies as well. There is concern that gene-editing technologies such as CRISPR will only be affordable for the rich. Consequently, this is going to be classy to show it off and be proud of your engineered genome very soon.
Religious and moral barriers
Many people with religious inclinations object to the use of human embryos for research. They view these edits as interference in God’s job. Although many scientific groups believe that gene editing in embryos is integral for a myriad of reasons, official funds cannot be allocated to research that creates or destroys embryos.
What will happen in the end?
There is no doubt that scientists in countries with lax bioethical standards will ultimately use CRISPR and similar technologies for different purposes. Bioethicists suggest that countries having more standard bioethical regulations take the lead to confine the use of CRISPR and define international regulations against unethical purposes regarding these technologies.
CRISPR/Cas9 technology has great potential to do good and harm simultaneously. In some ways, it raises the question about the very essence of being a human. We need to wait and see which side will dominate the other: the good side or the evil side.