BY MAY LIN TYE

What first comes to mind when you think of the term ‘gene editing’? Maybe you’ve already seen Rampage, blockbuster movie starring Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson and are picturing a future of giant indestructible gorillas. 1997 film Gattaca seemed to paint a pretty uncomfortable picture. Whatever you do or don’t know about gene editing, what you should know is that it is a reality. And in fact, it’s probably going to hit the mainstream sooner than we think. So are we facing a utopia or dystopia here? Professor Tim Dare from the University of Auckland, a lawyer, ethics expert, and philosopher gave us some insight, ahead of his participation in Late at the Museum event, ‘CRISPR – Utopian or Dystopian?’.

The acronym to know when talking about gene editing technology is CRISPR, pronounced “crisper”, and standing for Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats. As Professor Dare puts it, “CRISPR was developed from something that occurs naturally in bacteria.  Basically bacteria use the CRISPR technique to recognise and target DNA of invading viruses.  Scientists worked out what the bacteria were up to and realised that they could use the same  technique to an add, remove, or alter, genetic material at particular locations in the DNA of living things.” Think ‘ctrl + c, ctrl + v’, though obviously scads more complicated than that.

Photo from National Human Genome Research Institute. Credit: Jonathan Bailey, NHGRI.

What we’re talking about is changing DNA, meaning we can control how genes get expressed. The power of CRISPR is pretty insane. Among many potential applications, are the purposes of using it to ultimately cure diseases which can be traced to certain genetic features, and to develop creating strong and resistant crops. “Some well-known disorders which occur because of a genetic defect are Cystic Fibrosis, Muscular Dystrophy, and Huntington’s Disease.  Gene editing, such as CRISPR, may allow us replace the defective genes and treat these illnesses. Whether plants produce heavy or light crops, and whether they are resistant to certain kinds of pests will often be determined by their DNA.  We might be able to change the DNA of crops to make them more productive or more resistant to certain kinds of bugs or pests.” What does this mean for the world?

As to be expected, CRISPR is extremely controversial. And as explained by Professor Dare, much of this comes down to uncertainty.

Professor Tim Dare. Photo supplied.

It is undeniable that perceived fears relating to CRISPR are endless. Gene editing has sparked debate about what it truly means to be human. What defines ‘genetic defect’, what is considered an ‘undesirable trait’? What does this mean for society – the class systems, discrimination? Will this create inequity? These are the types of questions that spark the ethical debate. A very key controversy is the use of CRISPR to make modifications to human embryos and reproductive cells. These fears are all warranted but it is not always a clear debate.

As Professor Dare explains, “We could use gene editing not only to cure illnesses in people but also to make them ‘better’ in some way.  We might think it’s obvious that deafness is a bad thing, and that we should eliminate it if we could – and CRISPR might allow us to eliminate at least deafness which has a genetic basis.  But Beethoven’s later work, produced when he was deaf, are treasures.  We might have lost them had he not been deaf.”

But there are also problems inherent in the science of how it is done: “The targeting is not perfect.  We might accidentally make changes that we were not seeking … [once changes] have ‘got into the wild’, they may be hard to stop.” And then there’s the inequity debate, with the possibilities that, “big corporations will capture this technology, and make it hard for ordinary people to access it and benefit from it.  Some companies have patented new seeds.  In medicine we might worry that genetic medicine will be very expensive, available only to the wealthy.”

It’s the age old motto that with great power comes great responsibility. And luckily there are ethical principles that will (hopefully) guide this. Professor Dare introduces us to the pre-cautionary principle, that reminds us to be careful when risks are significant:

“When an activity raises threats of harm to human health or the environment, precautionary measures should be taken even if some cause and effect relationships are not fully established scientifically.”

It is undeniable that people will be nervous, suspicious, and fearful of gene editing technology such as CRISPR. But one thing Professor Dare emphasises is the importance of being educated about it. We need to remain cautious and to understand the risks, benefits, and bounds of this technology.

 

So just how far has gene editing gone already? Well, by 2019 Japan may permit gene editing in human embryos, it’s been shown to be effective in mice, and been successfully performed on human embryos to correct genetic mutation linked to a heart disorder called hypertropic cardiomyopathy (it’s true!). And while those are probably the most extreme applications, it is just the tip of the iceberg for the research/proof-of-concepts done in this field.

Professor Dare is excited by the possible benefits while saying, “I think we can control the risks. My greatest fear might be that there is widespread opposition, perhaps because there are few cases in which then technologies are misused, or perhaps just because of a lack of understanding.”

And as a researcher in the ethics of predictive risk modelling for child maltreatment – which is the use of data and algorithms to make predictions, he describes it is a similar story to CRISPR. Predictive risk modelling is so much more prevalent than gene editing, and is already being used to help make decisions on the daily, across so many different industries. It is all about knowing how to control it and use it to our advantage.  “I look at wonderful interventions such as vaccines, which have saved literally millions of lives and helped eradicate terrible diseases, and see the ill-informed but very influential opposition and fear we might see the same thing toward predictive risk modelling and CRISPR.”

“We live at a tremendously exciting time. We are seeing advances in science – including computer science – which have the potential to deliver both enormous benefits and significant risks.  We should all seek to be as well informed as we can manage, and do what we can to ensure that we secure those benefits while managing the risks.”

 

Professor Tim Dare will speak at CRISPR – Utopian or Dystopian? Post-Nature, as part of a panel at Late at the Museum on Wednesday, October 10. Book now!

 

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