Gene editing has the potential for greatness

Orla Dwyer

Gene editing has a huge number of possibilities but there are also great risks.

Gene editing has hit the headlines lately after a scientist in China claimed to have made the first pair of genetically edited twins. Although this has not yet been proven, it brings to light the misconceptions surrounding the issue of genetic editing. However, it may not be as scary and dystopian as many believe.

Genetically editing DNA is a hugely complex topic with consequences, both good and bad. It is not all about making blonde-haired blue-eyed babies and eugenics taking over the reproductive world (although this is an unfortunate potential).

At the end of November, a Chinese scientist claimed to have created the first set of genetically edited twins – a set of girls born earlier that month. The researcher, He Jiankui said he altered a gene in the embryos before they were implanted in the womb.

The topic of gene editing must bring in CRISPR which is at the forefront of gene technologies, primarily because it is extremely specific and cost effective compared with other technologies.

Gene editing is already taking place every day in our food. Genetically Modified Organisms. GMOs are present in a range of foods such as corn, squash and potatoes. The editing can make them last longer and prevent certain diseases.

One of the biggest potentials for CRISPR is to eradicate mosquitoes that were spreading malaria. London scientists planted a deadly gene in mosquito DNA to spread through generations quickly. In the experiment, they annihilated an entire group of insects through gene editing in the lab. In 2015, scientists used CRISPR to cut the HIV virus out of living cells in rats and mice.

The reaction to this fear of what could be has been a total ban on gene editing in many countries. In Canada, human germline editing is banned and criminalised. Banning gene editing outright is not the solution. The European Union has an established framework of aims to keep the development of GMOs safe. It is banned in the US but not in China.

A 2016 poll in France showed that 67 per cent of respondents were concerned about the acceleration of human genome research. 91 per cent of people said they did not know what CRISPR was.

The term ‘designer babies’ is brought up when it comes to gene editing. Currently, children can receive a one up from the rest of the world as they grow older through money, looks and social status. But what if some of these benefits could happen before they are even born? This idea that the perfect child could be crafted using their DNA for those who could afford to do so is certainly a problem facing the technology.

If genes could be edited to make life eternal but only those with money and power had access to it, the entire human race would rapidly be whittled down to the one per cent in power forever.

Of course, it could go terribly wrong, but like modern medicine, why deny its good aspects? Vaccines have some negative side effects, but most people get them for the greater good and the huge benefits we enjoy as a result of not dying from a curable disease at a young age.

Like anything, there are many sides to the story of gene editing. The potentials for catastrophe and uncharted success are endless, but banning it outright is the wrong answer to a complicated problem with vast potential.

Orla Dwyer

Image credit: Shutterstock