The world’s worst diseases and ailments may finally have cures.
The life sciences recently discovered the ability to alter the human genome, the very entity that encodes our humanity, in order to eliminate disease, mutations, and potentially engineer the perfect human.
Originally identified in the immune systems of single-celled organisms, Clustered Regularly Interspaced Palindromic Repeats (CRISPR) improve prokaryotes’ defense against phages and viruses by inserting strands of foreign DNA into its own genome. This allows for better, more effective responses against future attacks. However, CRISPR is no longer confined to single celled organisms.
Scientists are now attempting to use CRISPR variants, created and revised in the lab, to edit the genomes of multicellular organisms in order to remove detrimental mutations.
Recently, researchers used CRISPR technolology to repair a faulty gene in mice that causes Duchenne’s Muscular Dystrophy. By the end of the study, the mice had regained 80 percent of their muscular ability.
The power of CRISPR is so great that Director of National Intelligence James Clapper placed its gene-editing method on his list of weapons of mass destruction. Clapper said “its deliberate or unintentional misuse might lead to far-reaching… national security implications.”
CRISPR could be used ethically as an instrument for curing disease. But the power of genomic editing could also tempt scientists and future parents to use it not only to cure but also to “improve” human beings.
This raises the specter of humanity’s past attempts at eugenics. During the first half of the 20th century, a variety of methods were used to help create genetically superior humans, including the forced sterilization of more than 60,000 Americans through compulsory sterilization laws. Even more were sterilized without their knowledge. Nazi Germany’s concentration camps provide a yet more sobering reminder about previous attempts to “perfect” mankind.
CRISPR offers a much more efficient path for those who believe human beings can be improved. Modern-day eugenicists parading under the moniker of “transhumanism” believe that improving humanity is not only an option, but a moral duty. In an interview with Vice magazine, transhumanist philosopher and writer Zoltan Istvan said CRISPR should be used to “modify the human being to be much stronger and functional than it is.” Such hopes may sound benign, but one wonders what might happen when our new race of super-people come into being. What prevents forced sterilization, or worse, for those deemed genetically inferior?
The second danger conjured by the potential of CRISPR is the threat of the unknown, of meddling with systems that we do not fully understand. CRISPR would be used to permanently alter individual’s genomes, the long-term effects of which are uncertain. Although the human genome has been mapped, scientists are far from understanding the complex functions of, and interactions between, our genes. Simply waddling into the situation and modifying human beings without complete understanding of the consequences might seem insane, but that very thing is happening as you read this article. The United Kingdom recently approved studies that will use CRISPR to edit genes in human embryos.
Scientists have engineered variants of CRISPR technology to target specific locations on a genome, typically the location of a mutation. CRISPR variants then carry an endonuclease, Cas9, to the desired location and remove the mutated gene(s).
Next, a CRISPR-based transport installs a repaired or enhanced set of genes in place of the mutation. Theoretically, with the mutation eliminated, the genome would be able to function flawlessly. CRISPR technology has moved from theory to reality.
A paper published in December 2015 revealed that researchers have reversed the negative effects of Duchenne muscular dystrophy in mature mice. While the mice never regained full function in the affected areas, their dystrophin production was mostly restored, allowing them to live relatively normal lives with minimal effect on their mobility.
These successes paint a grand picture for the future of CRISPR, which could one day be used to eliminate genetic diseases such as DMD, Down Syndrome and cancer susceptibilities. However, nothing is free and everything is far from certain.
Often, when new technologies like CRISPR are developed, man temporarily forgets that the universe is not under his control. Regardless of the dams built, antidotes made, poisons perfected and medicines manufactured, nature always finds a way to remind man that it is in control, and when it does, the results can be catastrophic. The dangers associated with CRISPR — unethical genetic alteration and reckless use of powers man does not understand — must be thoroughly explored before use of the technology is considered.