Every year, studies are published that reveal more efficient and effective techniques to control the expression of genes within plants, animals and worryingly, in humans. While I can see the enormous benefits of down regulating genes involved in disabilities and disease, I can also see how the system might be abused.
Using biomechanisms within specific bacteria to edit the genes of another species has been around since 2012, giving us an exciting glimpse into what the future might hold. Along with these recent developments in CRISPR editing are a raft of controversial studies that straddle the boundary of ethical decency and therein lies the problem; the research is progressing so fast; the legal and ethical regulatory bodies cannot keep up.
I don’t doubt that the vast majority of researchers have lofty aspirations in the realms of improving human health and well being, but when their studies are funded by unscrupulous business leaders, it’s not hard to see where their loyalties lay or how the focus of interest influenced.
Of the successful trials published in recent years, CRISPR mechanisms have shown great promise in reducing the severity of genetic deafness in mice, created mushrooms that keep their colour for longer before browning, and treated sickle-cell anaemic bone marrow cells in mice. As the power to manipulate genes becomes ever more targeted and sophisticated, this system could provide the means to wipe out diseases such as malaria, by way of gene drives designed to inhibit the reproductive capabilities of pathogen carrying mosquitoes.
A team at Imperial College London are already at the stage whereby trial compounds are underway in specific regions of Africa where malaria is rife. This method relies on lab reared insects carrying the manipulated genes to spread among the indigenous population to either render the following generation of mosquito sterile or, as in the case of another team, to render them immune to malarial pathogen infection.
These changes to a dynamic population structure may have unknown consequences to the local food chains and environment, hence the need for rigorous testing, but the advantages of lowered child deaths from the disease could outweigh the disadvantages to the regional ecology.
A Bristol University team of scientists, led by Heather Whitney have developed a more disturbing method for delivering the CRISPR gene editing system. In their quest to genetically alter crops, they have devised a soluble method that only requires the use of a simple hand held spray mister. The team hope to scale up to use aerial crop dusters in the future.
The implications of this are profound.
Should any government sanctioned ‘cure’ be dispersed via aircraft, it could be more than plants caught in the cross-hairs. This opens up an entirely new global threat to populations, as politicians, world leaders, and terrorists turn their attention away from nuclear weapons to focus on a new range of bioweaponry.
Scientists at Duke University, North Carolina, have already had success with using CRISPR to target and silence two genes in human papillomavirus. In addition to this, three children have been born in China using unauthorised CRISPR edited genomes. In November 2018, He Jiankui reported that he’d created the world’s first human babies with CRISPR edited genes, twin girls who were said to be resistant to HIV. They are just the successful, viable embryos that made it into the world’s media. How many unsuccessful attempts were made prior to those, that were not publicised?
In the 12th September edition of The New Scientist Magazine, reporters claim that Russian biologist, Denis Rebrikov, is set to continue using CRISPR gene editing to eliminate the chances of inheriting deafness, despite the fact that the International Commission on the Clinical Use of Human Germline Genome Editing has released a report stating that the process is not safe to test on human subjects.
While the system of gene editing shows promising indications for future studies, the process by which the enzyme, Cas9, cuts and splices the targeted DNA is not reliable. Often, the cut DNA attempts to repair itself, misreading the sequences and rebuilding an incorrect code, resulting in damaged genes that are unable to function. Other times, particularly when the system is applied to stem cells, they are prone to grow exponentially, or mutate to form a cancerous growth.
In short, the use of human CRISPR editing is not safe and may result in ill health or even death.
Despite a group of 18 doctors, biologists, and ethicists, releasing acceptable use guidelines, the regulation and policing of research into human gene editing falls to the governing powers in each country or state. Those who have the most to gain from perfecting gene editing may deliberately overlook the ethical implications of failed trials, particularly where primary foci may be in the development of military applications.
Two scientists are already publicly flouting the responsible use guidelines published by the commission. How many more are doing the exact same thing or worse behind closed doors?
As the Director of the National Institute of Health, Francis Collins, said; the experiment was “Profoundly disturbing and tramples on ethical norms.” If our world’s researchers will not comply with recommendations of human decency, then who will stop them from further, more heinous transgressions?
We need to raise the profile of these ethical violations that in any other time would be considered war crimes. How can it be acceptable to tamper with the genetic makeup of unborn children in the hope that a few survive long enough to claim their experiment a success? What happens to those born with genetic mutations? I shudder to think how many infants have already lost their lives in the pursuit of designer babies, not to mention the cruelty and anguish inflicted on the host mothers.
These are the kind of stories that are glossed over in high-brow scientific journals and deemed un-newsworthy in the mainstream media channels. If we are all prepared to turn a blind eye to the start of such sophisticated bioterror, then we all face a desperate future.