Gene editing has become a paragon of innovation in the scientific community. Specifically, the use of CRISPR-Cas9, has triggered an abundance of different applications. However, it has also triggered just as many ethical concerns. These ethical concerns are often not made clear to the public; only those involved in highly technical communities are made aware of them. It is important to begin straying from this paradigm, and having public dialogue concerning the costs and benefits of these advancements. It is within public interest that we are all made aware of the possible risks of products that are being launched into the public sphere, and can make a collective, educated decision on how to proceed forward with the new technology we have been granted.
CRISPR-Cas9 is a genome editing tool. It allows researchers to alter DNA sequences, and subsequently modify gene function. CRISPR operates by using a protein, Cas9, that cuts unwanted strands of DNA. This protein can be thought of as molecular scizzors. It has a myriad of different possible applications, most prospectively treating genetic defects, including cystic fibrosis, cataracts, and Fanconi anemia. This has paved the way for using the device as immunotherapy for treating and preventing the spread of diseases. CRISPR is also projected to improve crop yield, drought tolerance, and nutritional content of plants by vaccinating crops, as well as obliterating invasive pests and reversing pesticide resistance.
So far it sounds great. And in regards to technological progress and how we approach biological maladies, it is. The device is simple to construct, easy to use, and relative to other genome editing devices, it is on the cheaper end. This makes it extremely attractive to molecular biologists. However, as with every new piece of technology, there are about as many downfalls as there are benefits. It is important to consider these downfalls, weigh them against the pros, and do a maleficence assessment in order to decide how to move forward. There are of course the logistical limitations, including efficiency of the product and possible variances of it being used under different conditions. However, with CRISPR, the ethical implications are most notable within its field of concern.
There is an abundance of ethical consequences of tampering with genomes. First, this piece of technology is susceptible to a phenomenon known as off-target effects. This is where DNA is cut at places other than the intended target, which not only damages the efficacy of the product, but also raises the probability of unintended mutations. This paves the way for another phenomenon known as genome vandalism, in which the safety of whoever is receiving the treatment is compromised.
Second, is the risk associated with possible proliferation of unanticipated mutations. This risk goes hand in hand with germline editing, which is the editing of embryonic cells. These changes can be passed down to future generations, which is handy for alleviating genetic diseases in different family lines. However, due to the limit of human knowledge on the possible risks and how the device interacts with different disease pathways, there is a threat of unanticipated consequences on future generations. The magnitude of this risk derives from the fact that we cannot gauge the extent of it until it has already happened.
CRISPR also renews many previous social concerns that have stood the test of time for human development. For example, in addition to posing risks to its users, CRISPR also poses risks to the environment. A trait introduced to one species could easily be spread to another via crossbreeding, which could damage genetic diversity. Moreover, it further polarizes the wealthy from the non-wealthy, since only those of appropriate monetary means can access it.
The costs and the benefits to CRISPR are both potent and pertinent. As such, we have a convoluted question of how to proceed on our hands. Do we call a timeout? Do we mitigate the issue with laws? Regulations? Policy enactments? The answer to this question is about as straightforward as a circle. After evaluating the consequences of CRISPR, researchers have decided to go with a “caution, not prohibition” course of action. But, what does this exactly entail? According to leading researchers, it means that we have the green light to proceed, but not to go full throttle. It means that research for uses and testing of these uses will be continued, but not without thorough cost-benefit analysis being performed for every step along the way.
Soon, CRISPR-Cas9 could prevent your child from having a disease your family has grappled with for generations. Soon, it could help solve world famine. Soon, it could help protect the public against common viruses that have stayed with us over the course of our development. Genetic counseling is becoming a concrete reality, and is no longer just something portrayed in sci-fi movies. However, it is important to not forget that while this piece of technology is incredibly useful and progressive, it also lends itself to ethical complications that must not be ignored. It is important to remain informed about the science that is impacting our society, and to close the gap of knowledge between researchers and the general public.