Humanity had persisted for millennia, with us having no knowledge of the genetic code. But after the discovery in 1953 of DNA’s double helix encoding the data that gives us our human form, scientists are developing techniques to scan genetic sequences as well as make alterations in genetics.
By 2012, scientists developed CRISPR technology, which we can use to edit genes inside of living cells. CRISPR is short for “Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats.”
People need to be aware of the potential for CRISPR gene editing to improve their health and quality of life. But editing genes is a new science. It raises questions about how and why we will use it on human beings, especially as we advance the technology.
Ethical Considerations for CRISPR
With the power to edit genes comes a great sense of responsibility. Accordingly, researchers must explore, discuss and consider different points of view regarding the ethics of changing our genetic code.
As the Association of American Medical Colleges put it, “CRISPR is revolutionizing experimental therapies for genetic disorders ranging from sickle cell disease to blindness, but where should society draw the line in editing genes?” The AAMC pointed out that more than a year has passed since Dr. Markus Mapara, professor of medicine and director of blood and marrow transplants at Columbia University Irving Medical Center of New York, began experimenting with CRISPR gene editing to treat patients suffering from sickle cell anemia.
People with sickle cell anemia experience organ damage and pain and face premature death without treatment. Dr. Mapara reports that one patient is doing well and has not had another sickle cell crisis to date, per the AAMC. For context, sickle cell anemia affects millions of individuals around the world (approximately 100,000 people in the U.S. currently are diagnosed with this blood disorder).
The disease is caused by a mutation in people’s genes, causing them to produce an abnormal form of hemoglobin that’s curved or sickle-shaped. With this protein unable to properly deliver oxygen, it presents a major health risk.
Currently, the standard form of treatment is to give a sickle cell patient bone marrow that a healthy person donates. It’s not a perfect solution, though, because there is always a potential for the recipient to react badly to the donated cells and reject them.
That’s why physicians such as Dr. Mapara want to test using CRISPR gene editing to alleviate genetic disorders.
The AAMC notes that researchers are working with CRISPR for a range of disorders, from cancer to vision defects.
But one key issue to keep in mind is who will have access to such treatments. It quoted CRISPR co-developer Jennifer Doudna, who spoke at an AAMC annual meeting, “We have to really grapple with equity and accessibility. We have to be cognizant of how to be sure that everyone who can benefit from this technology has access to it.”
Society Will Need to Examine the Ethics of Gene Editing as Our Tools to Modify DNA Grow More Powerful and Sophisticated
Experiments such as the work being done to improve the health of sickle cell patients in Columbia University certainly do give hope to suffering people.
It’s worth keeping in mind that CRISPR technology has been with us only since 2012, and while scientists are improving it, they will also need to give further consideration to how to use this tool safely and ethically.
Changing fundamental aspects of our genetic code could alter what it means to be a human going forward. It’s not a journey to go on without plenty of thoughtful discussion from people with a wide range of points of view.