CRISPR; Are We Pushing The Gene Technology Too Far?

CRISPR; Are We Pushing The Gene Technology Too Far?

CRISPR (clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats) is a technology used to selectively modify the DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid) of living organisms. It works by identifying specific stretches of DNA codes at precise locations and editing them. Editing takes place by cutting the strand of DNA and allowing for the insertion of new correct strands or joining the end of the DNAs.

Lots of possibilities have been anticipated with the use of this technology including but not limited to diagnostics, mutation corrections and offering alternative pathways for stretching the limits of genetic engineering – gene alteration.

The CRISPR technology has been evolving. Today, the advanced CRISPR-Cpf1 differs a great deal from the previous CRISPR-Cas9. CRISPR-Cpf1 is far more efficient and reduces the possibilities of mutations while at the same time increasing the possibility of corrections in the event they happen after the CRISPR procedure.

The major scientific difference between the two advances though is that CRISPR-Cpf1 uses a single RNA (ribonucleic acid) and cuts the DNA differently compared to CRISPR-Cas9 which in addition uses two RNAs. The principle though remains the same, they are DNA-cut tools.

Gene technology too has evolved very fast since the scientific community developed the capability of sequencing DNA. DNA is a double-strand helix structure made of several nucleotide monomers. The nucleotide comprises a nitrogenous base, a carbon-based sugar and a phosphate group. The nitrogenous bases A-T (Adenine – Thymine) and G-C (Guanine -Cytosine) join together by hydrogen bonds in a complementary manner to form short oligonucleotide molecules.

It is these nucleotides and oligonucleotides, depending on which technology is being used, that can be altered at specific locations in the DNA series using CRISPR technology or other technologies as well. Altering the DNA is usually done to rectify genetic disorders caused by mutations or for research purposes.

Genetic disorders are responsible for very many different diseases and conditions such as albinism, cystic fibrosis, sickle cell diseases, x syndrome, down syndrome, haemophilia, chromosomal abnormality et cetera. Through research, science has been studying the genetic compositions of patients and individuals with these diseases and conditions with the possibility of finding the gene mutations responsible and rectifying them using CRISPR.

Currently, lab results have shown that cutting off the mutations and rectifying the disorder results in positive outcomes. With this confidence, there is a greater chance that more clinical trials are on the way or already underway to try this on real patients on a wider scale. And this is where the ethics concern begins around such gene technologies such as CRISPR.

There are many concerns regarding the unknown long-term effect of this alteration in the patient’s biological conditions. To some factions, the human genetic composition is akin to a ‘sanctified’ piece that doesn’t need to be touched with fear that altering this natural biological phenomenon could result in very dangerous, yet unknown consequences. This is partly true and partly unfounded.

Up to the point that CRISPR technology works on cells, it means that there is no alteration in subsequent genetic material being passed down to subsequent generations. This raises a genuine concern that at that level, the technology only addresses the results and never the causes. So, fears of ‘aliens’ in the generations to come are far-fetched. But the concern that the long-term effects of these editing on the individual’s genes much as it may seem to be working is not yet fully understood.

CRISPR is a very powerful tool. So powerful that it is now being used in what translates loosely as ‘human design.” Photo Courtesy of the New Yorker.

But then it doesn’t stop there. The latest research has moved beyond the cells and into the nucleus, which is the genetic bank of an individual. To work out some of these conditions, scientists are looking at possibilities of altering the DNA compositions even before a child is born to have desired characteristics and do away with any genetic conditions in a lineage for example.

CRISPR technology is turning out to be an enabler of genetic human design. This is where the pushing too far question comes in. Have we understood human genetic engineering too well to the extent we can comfortably begin altering the genetic composition of a person at or before inception? Do we understand well enough any long-term effects of this scientific development? Are we in a race towards self-human destruction? Is there a limit to how far we can go with the use of this technology for human genetic modifications? With this progress, are we about to face the reality of zombies?

Some of these questions sound trivial and others need serious consideration, yet with technology, we can only understand how far we can go by simply experimenting and embracing the forward latch. If the past is anything to go by, technology is not about to slow down any time soon. So, we can only find out how far we can go by following the progress we are making in this interesting field of science, technology and medicine.

Keep your tabs open.

Geoffrey Ndege

Geoffrey Ndege

Geoffrey Ndege is the Editor and topical contributor for the Daily Focus. He writes in the areas of Science, Manufacturing, Technology, Innovation, Governance, Management and International Emerging Issues. For featuring, promotions or support, reach out to us at info@dailyfocus.co.ke
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