By Ellen Arkfeld

The days of human genome editing are rapidly approaching with the development of the editing tool CRISPR.  CRISPR grants scientists unprecedented precision and ease in editing the genome.  Unlike previous genetic engineering technologies, CRISPR is highly accurate and allows DNA editing without causing adverse side effects.

One application of CRISPR involves the manipulation of human embryos for therapeutic purposes. Genes can be edited to test cures diseases, such as cancer and Parkinson’s disease. CRISPR techniques can also be used to learn more about how developmental disorders evolve and occur.

Another CRISPR application involves the direct manipulation of gestating embryos to alter the traits and germline of the developing fetus. This is considerably more controversial than the therapeutic application. Many scientists are wary of the consequences that might ensue from editing human germlines. Jennifer Duodna, the scientist who developed the technique in 2012, has joined other researchers to call for a moratorium on research into human genome editing until potential ethical concerns can be addressed.

Like therapeutic genome editing, reproductive genome editing has an enormous potential to alleviate illness.  The process could be used to edit out genes that cause diseases like cystic fibrosis, Huntington’s disease, and sickle cell anemia, so that children are not born with them in the first place. Some researches even believe that such editing could be used to give people genetic immunity to illnesses.

Despite these benefits, some critics argue that altering the germline in any way, even for therapeutic purposes, is a threat to human dignity. Additionally, there are other ethical issues that arise out of the practical limitations of this technology and our limited knowledge of the genome. Despite CRISPR’s precision, safety is a serious concern.  In the first paper published on embryonic editing, researchers in China chronicled their inability to successfully edit the genome without causing additional, unintended alterations. Our lack of knowledge might lead to unpredictable, negative consequences, inadvertently causing major damage to the human genome. It is impossible to guarantee that the first genetically edited human child would be born without complications. For some, this by itself is a reason we should never attempt it. Others point to the fact that the same concerns surrounded the debate regarding the use of IVF technologies, and that those concerns quickly dissipated once healthy children were born. Opponents of human germline editing also stress that once we start editing the genome, we open the door to the problem of eugenics.

Even though there are legitimate ethical concerns regarding the use of CRISPR technology, it is unlikely that these arguments will prevent further research or experimentation; several research groups are already pursuing human gene editing. Many believe that the potential benefits for individuals outweigh any risks to society.

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