Washington D.C. — On Tuesday, a large group of scientists, advisors and policy makers reunited in Washington to go over the ethical implications of the CRISPR technique, which is used for gene editing. The summit took place in the National Academy of Sciences.

The CRISPR system – which stands for Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats – is a cheap and accessible way to modify genes by adding them or altering their sequence. The consequences of this gene editing may even become heritable and, if so, the method could be used for the eradication of dangerous hereditary illnesses.

With the CRISPR system, the organism’s genome can be relatively cheaply cut at any desired location. Credit: Sun-sentinel.com

The technique, however, has brought some ethical concerns between scientists who wonder if humankind has gone too far. Some of them suggest that modifying human genomes is considerably dangerous, especially if this modification becomes hereditary. They fear the consequences might be negative and that science is not yet ready to take that step.

On one side, researchers argue that humans’ biological systems are extremely complex and thus, messing with them permanently would be too risky. On the other hand, some bioethics advocates feel discouraged by the possibility of CRISPR being used only for esthetic modification. They also go over the intellectual or physical advantage the technique would grant some persons over others, should it succeed.

“The overriding question is when, if ever, we will want to use gene editing to change human inheritance,” said David Baltimore, chair of Caltech.

Ismail Serageldin, an Egyptian historian of the Library of Alexandria, said that we had been playing god from the very moment we started domesticating plants and animals. Daniel Kevles, another historian at Yale, said that human genetic modification in this day and age will be motivated by commercial purposes, adding the biotech industry to consumers’ demand.

The genetic modification on humans had already a start up in China, where scientists experimented the CRISPR technique on nonviable human embryos.

CRISPR works with the Cas9 enzyme, which allows the gene editing if targeted properly, cutting the DNA string in the desired place. Currently, scientists still haven’t developed a method to achieve maximum precision, although there have been great advances on the field of genetic modification.

“We don’t understand enough yet about the human genome, and how genes interact, and which genes give rise to certain traits to edit for human enhancement today,” said Jennifer Doudna, professor of molecular and cell biology at the University of California.

As researchers at Harvard and M.I.T brought up a new way to improve the precision of CRISPR’s DNA-snipping, Feng Zhang, one of the study’s authors, said there are a lot more systems that might prove to be even more powerful, and that scientists could be able to take the human editing technology to the next level.

Source: Washington Post