August 6, 2017

Editorial: CRISPR and the future

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How far are we willing to let science take us away from the whims of nature?

In the 1950s and 1960s, scientists cracked the genetic code — a breakthrough that still inspires awe and wonder for revealing the essential, powerful machinery of life.

Now science has given us something new to think about: How sacrosanct is that code? Is it OK to manipulate the unique DNA each of us carry?

Last week, a paper in Nature showed just how far scientists have opened the doors on DNA over the last decades, edging from appreciative observers to cautious participants. A global research effort lead by a team at Oregon Health & Science University used a fairly recent technology called CRISPR to edit a defective gene inside viable human embryos.

In more than 50 one-cell embryos (not destined for implantation in a womb and only allowed to develop for a few days), the sophisticated procedure — which in effect is a cut-and-paste operation — “corrected” a mutated gene that can cause a condition known as hypertrophic cardiomyopathy.

The methodology improved on prior similar experiments conducted in China, leading to hope of important medical applications down the road.

As a statement from Nature, a leading research journal, suggests, in the not-too-distant future we might be able to reliably, accurately edit particular genes in embryos. The embryos would grow into children and would carry their manipulated DNA into adulthood, and be able to pass it down to their own offspring. DNA manipulation technologies also hold promise to treat patients suffering from various conditions that have a genetic component.

Are we ready for this?

Glorious chance has been one of the fundamental driving forces in the unimaginably complex processes that keep species evolving.

When it comes to targeting specific debilitating diseases — and as long as we employ strict regulations on the medical and scientific communities addressing issues of safety and ethics — we say, yes. A great deal of research remains to be done, but mankind could be on the threshold of a completely new approach to treating, perhaps even eventually eliminating, medical problems that currently cause suffering and heartache.

It is, as they say, a brave new world. Breakthroughs such as described in the Nature paper last week hold the potential for serious and unwanted applications. Bioweaponry arising from gene-editing advances is a genuine possibility.

Potentially devastating in a different way are concerns already being raised about “designer babies” — the possible future opportunity of using germline engineering to alter DNA in developing embryos, in an attempt to instill qualities such as intelligence as height.

If and when that kind of embryo-editing question arises, we will trust in the age-old wisdom of Mother Nature. Since the first single-celled organisms succeeded at earliest life, glorious chance has been one of the fundamental driving forces in the unimaginably complex processes that keep species evolving, and individuals wonderfully unique.

It was inevitable that, in the lab at least, research would evolve from cracking the genetic code to actually manipulating it in DNA sequences. The molecular biology boom that took off in the 1980s has provided enormous information about normal subcellular workings and certain disease mechanisms. Worcester is a proud and valuable player in that boom.

A mixture of excitement and trepidation is appropriate at this coming juncture in medicine, science and society. Reflection is, too.

There are no easy answers on the CRISPR and other technologies bringing us to the cusp of new biotechnological breakthroughs.

But the questions they raise are ones we are all qualified — and obligated — to tackle.

It takes scientific minds and training to invent and employ these fascinating technologies. But all of us are familiar in some ways with the mysteries they encroach upon.

Who are we?

What do we want?

Where are we going?

These are age-old contemplations that come with being human. And that will never change.

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