Ethical Considerations to Gene-Editing

woman in lab

writer icon Emma Egelund     Ani Kolleshi   |   Ethics     🕐 17. Jun. 2019

What are the ethical considerations to using gene-editing, both when it comes to plant crops and to editing babies? These are some of the questions asked in a journalistic chronicle by Karin Bojs titled: Can you edit a better baby?

The DN article addresses CRISPR in its latest configuration. Having originally referred to the genetic information ‘Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats’, CRISPR is being used alongside with Cas9 as a genome editing tool.

What is CRISPR/Cas9?
CRISPR/Cas9 gene-editing platform "edits genes by precisely cutting DNA and then letting natural DNA repair processes to take over." The platform is perhaps best described as ‘molecular scissors’ which can be used to edit genomes. Thus can be used, for instance, in plants to make crops more drought resistent.

It can also be used in humans to repair genetic defects that lead to disease, or when it comes to cellular engineering “potentially engineer the genomes of cellular therapies to make them more efficacious, safer and available to a broader group of patients.”

CRISPR was originally developed in the northern Swedish Umeå University, by french scientist and co-inventor Dr. Emmanuelle Charpentier. Charpentier was only at the Swedish university as a guest-researcher however, and when she moved on to greener pastures, so did CRISPR.

CRISPR Therapeutics headquarters are based in Switzerland, and their main operations unit can be found in USA, where they are in the process of building a research and development center in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Controversial applications
With recent news that Russian molecular biologist, Denis Rebrikov, is looking to use gene-editing on babies carried by HIV positive mothers, there has been an international outcry.

Specialists from seven countries had already called for a temporary ban on gene editing, so as to implement an international governance framework “on all clinical uses of human germline editing — that is, changing heritable DNA (in sperm, eggs or embryos) to make genetically modified children.”

The reasons for needing such a framework are many. But perhaps most urgently, as made evident by cases such Rebrikov, Jennifer Doudna at the University of California Berkeley, warns that that “[t]he technology is not ready.”

Doudna is one of the molecular biologists who helped develop the CRISPR-Cas9 genome-editing system. And while she admits that Rebrikov’s planned application of CRISPR-Cas9 “is not is very disappointing and unsettling.”

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