A new era in molecular biology has arisen with the recentdiscovery of genetic engineering using ‘clustered regularly interspaced shortpalindromic repeats’ or CRISPR Cas-9 proteins (Deltcheva, 2011). Often shortened to CRISPR, thesespecialised microbial DNA sequences are a discovery sweeping the globe afterscientists have now fully appreciated the unprecedented ease and precision withwhich they work (Olson, 2015).
Researchers believe they may be able to cure blood diseases such as HIV, solve agriculturalproblems in Africa, enable previously impossible transplants and, in a scenarioakin with eugenics, create a genetically perfect race (Cobb, 2017).There is clearly a potential for tremendous global impact and consequently theneed to evaluate the ethical issues surrounding the use of this remarkablediscovery is necessary. In this essay, key differences in approach will bediscussed, focussing on the viewpoints of the UK, the USA and China. CRISPR works by targeting and editing specific sequenceswithin genomes (the full set of genetic material in an organism) andessentially cuts away genes that are then repaired by another moleculeintroduced at the same time (Cobb, 2017). This targetedrepair system could be used in germ line (sperm, egg or embryonic) cells, wherethe changes made are subsequently passed on to all future generations. Alternatively,it could be used in somatic (typical body) cells in which case futuregenerations would not be affected. Germ line therapy is potentially dangerousas all descendants carry the same modified genes (Knapton, 2015).An issue with this technique is that we have not carried out sufficientexperimental research to be sure how it will interact with the original genesand other genes in an organism.
Scientists around the world are now carryingout some quite transformational experiments with quite profound implications.The question is: are they acting in a considered way or are they perhaps alittle over-enthusiastic in their approach? Matthew Cobb is a professor of Zoology at The University ofManchester, UK. He has written about CRISPR controlling disease vectors such asmosquitos, thereby eradicating diseases such as malaria or the Zika virus bymaking the female mosquito infertile or free of disease-coding genes. Such usecannot be understated but there is the cost of damaging ecosystems intercontinentally.Cobb believes that while rendering a mosquito infertile may seem beneficial,the implications ecologically and for food chains are likely to be catastrophic (Cobb, 2017).
More scientificconsiderations for the use of CRISPR can be found in Cobb’s book, ‘Life’s Greatest Secret: The Race to Crackthe Genetic Code’ aimed at an academic audience. In this book, the views ofmany scientific publications are taken into account, which were subject to peerassessment in a range of high-impact journals such as Nature and New Scientist.Further evidence for the credence of this source comes from the fact thatMatthew Cobb is a widely acclaimed author and an internationally recognisedscientist. He has been an invited speaker at conferences held around the worldand is a regular contributor on science programs.
Therefore, the information itcontains can be considered to be both accurate and reliable. Experimentalscientists have tested and proved his extended research on the subject, whichmeans that although his primary research interests lie in insect behaviour, hisresearch on CRISPR is credible.Whilst molecular biologists may appreciate the consequencesof their work, both good and bad, scientists need to work within the legalframework of their country of work. In December 2015, an international summitwas held by the National Science Academies of the United States of America, theUnited Kingdom and China. The key issue on the agenda was the topic of CRISPR andits ethical use (Harris, 2016). A mutual agreementon all areas was impossible to reach but, after a long debate, all countriesagreed that genetically manipulated embryos should not be implanted into women.
This was due to possible unknown effects of altering genes that would be passedon to all future descendants and was deemed to be extremely risky humanexperimentation (Darnovsky, 2016). However, such ‘global agreements’ arenot legally binding and the USA, UK and China implement their own laws. Legislationmay also be quite a lengthy process and, quite often, independent ethicalbodies are invited to prepare reports to help inform a government’s decision. Currently, UK law states that genetic modification of humanembryos, or embryos made with gene (CRISPR) edited sperm or eggs, is allowed forresearch purposes but they should not be implanted into a woman (Sample, 2017).
The only exceptionis when a process called mitochondrial transfer is used, prior to implantation.Although this is not gene editing, per se, it does involve mitochondrial DNAbeing introduced into a developing embryo and so this will affect futuregenerations with the aim being to stop genetic diseases being passed on. Thisis an emotive subject because the mitochondrial diseases being prevented areseriously debilitating and life-threatening to those that have them. Perhapsfor this reason this was deemed an ethical and a necessary risk to take and wastherefore endorsed by parliament in 2015 according to the columnist Ian Sample,writing for the Guardian; a newspaper that is generally regarded as a reliablesource (Sample, 2017). The only caveat with the Guardian as asource is that it tends to be left leaning in its political stance and doeshave a broad range of editorial authors who may have radical views. The articleused for information here is not written from a political standpoint and cantherefore be considered a trustworthy reflection of the concerns faced byparliament.
Sample is the science editor for this broadsheet paper, and haspreviously won two science awards from the Association of British Science Writers.The Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA) approveda request for the first time by the Francis Crick Institute in London,recently, to use CRISPR to genetically modify a human embryo in a laboratory (Harris, 2016). The team wanted tounderstand further embryonic development with the hope it would lead to betterfertility treatments in the future.
This was of significant importance becausethis was the first time that such a request had been approved and sanctioned byany national regulatory authority in the UK, according to John Harris writingfor the National Geographic (Harris, 2016). He argues that geneediting “must,” continue in humans and that any objections, such as embryomanipulation being “unnatural” or that it amounts to “playing God”, areirrelevant. He believes that since they rest on the premise that “natural isinherently good” and therefore we must strive to conserve this, then we simply cannotuse antibiotics or even practice medicine. The National Geographic itselfstates that it strives to publish peer assessed scientific articles respectingthe consensus of expert opinion and adhering to all key scientific principles(meaning it is unbiased and factually correct). However Harris’s article ismostly based on his opinion alone, and so although he is a professor emeritusin science ethics supposedly making his opinions valid, they should be treatedin association with opinions from other scientists of similar standing in orderto gain a balanced view.
In contrast to other parts of the world, the laws in Chinaregarding genetic modification by CRISPR are much looser and consequently, theywere the first country to launch a trial of CRISPR Cas-9 to treat patients withsevere lung cancer. It is worth noting that all other therapies had failed andtherefore the condition was terminal (Sample, 2017). This practice would not be allowedunder British or US law, but there was nothing to prevent the Chinesescientists from carrying this out. These patients were in effect ‘guinea pigs’.US law previously endorsed the use of CRISPR procedures to prevent seriousmedical conditions from being passed on to children, however a temporaryrestriction has been placed on the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) fromconsidering applications for clinical trials concerning CRISPR (Sample, 2017).Considering that this powerful gene-modifying tool has thepotential to herald the eradication of harmful inherited diseases andsubsequently reduce worldwide human suffering, one can see the ease in which weare being lead toward a genetically ‘perfect race’ being created (Knapton, 2015). As discussed above, germ line therapyhas not been approved in either the UK or the USA since the impact of passingon genes could be detrimental to all future descendants and therefore crossesan ethical line (Cobb, 2017).
Nevertheless, Chinese scientists were the first in the world to ignore thisprospective danger and controversially used CRISPR to genetically modify ahuman embryo (Knapton, 2015). Although they claimed that this embryowas “non-viable”, it still poses the question as to where this research isleading us? The scientists in question are from the University of Sun Yat-Senin Guangzhou and, according to Knapton, writing for the Telegraph newspaper;they have successfully edited the gene responsible for the fatal blood disorderthalassaemia (Knapton, 2015). The Telegraph’s science editor shouldpublish accurate and non-biased information. The reliability of this source isfurther shown by the consideration of opposing views. In this article theChinese scientists are reported to have been criticised by Dr David King, thedirector of the UK Human Genetics Alert, and are called “a classic example ofscientific careerism”. Furthermore the original scientific paper was cited,published in Protein and Cell after both Nature and Science journals refused topublish it on ethical grounds. Knapton comments on all these viewpoints andtherefore this article on CRISPR can be deemed reliable.There isa view that the world is focussing a little too much on the use of gene editingin humans and is slow to consider the effects of this revolutionary process onother animals, such as pigs (Cobb, 2017).
Agriculture in Africa has little in the way of pig farming,because these animals are highly susceptible to African swine fever. CRISPRoffers the prospect of removing the relevant susceptible gene in pigs andreplacing it with a resistant gene found in African warthogs (Cobb, 2017).These animals are now being tested to see if the resistance is passed on and,if so, they could significantly boost Africa’s economy. Moreover, in the USA, piglets have now been’CRISPRed’ to be capable of providing transplants to humans that are lesslikely to be rejected, according to Science journal (Servick, 2017) , whereas others have been edited tocarry less fat, as said by the Daily Mail (Borkhataria, 2017). It is debatable whether the Daily Mailcan be treated as a reputable or accurate information source not least becauseWikipedia has banned it as “unreliable”. When discussing the topic of CRISPR,Harry Pettit sensationalised the topic by using dramatic vocabulary throughoutsuch as describing the technique as a “golden bullet” and claiming that it canbe used to create “children with blonde hair or above average height”, withseemingly no factual knowledge to back this up (Pettit, 2017).
CRISPR certainly has the potential tosignificantly advance human health and our wellbeing but guarding against itsmisuse is of paramount importance. This is particularly important since somepeople may believe that it should be used to create more genetically perfecthumans, and not only to stamp out disease. One must ask oneself, as a species,where should we draw the line; should we alter the germ line in such a way thataffects the next generation without their consent? (Darnovsky, 2016) We need to worktogether, across borders, to ensure we are happy with the consequences of ouractions and consider whether there is also a cost of not doing anything andsimply sitting upon such a discovery, which could almost certainly have astarring role in our future. In the meantime, answers to great scientific,ethical and philosophical questions that are raised by CRISPR Cas-9 may remainunknown (Yin, 2015).