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Ethicists Say Go Slow On Gene-editing CRISPR, Ponder What It Means To Be Human

18 February 2017, 11:05 am EST By Antonio Manaytay Tech Times
The renewed call for caution in handling the revolutionary gene-editing CRISPR reverberates. A geneticist, in this file photo, works in National Institute of Health lab.  ( Ian Waldie | Getty Images )

The search for cure of congenital and other serious illnesses may be over with the revolutionary gene-editing tool known as CRISPR. Among its uses is to help scientists understand the genetic origin of an illness, which was not possible in the past.

The future, the scientific community trumpeted, has arrived.

Ethicists warned, however, of the risks as scientists wield the tool that has the potential not only to cure patient's congenital disease but could also make permanent changes in the human genome that are heritable by a person's offspring.

In a report by the National Academy of Sciences and the National Academy of Medicine published on Feb. 14, the experts sounded the need not to rush on CRISPR. While the report did not completely prohibit the editing of a human genome, it called for sort of bar of standards to allow it only if proven safe.

Major Departure, A Slippery Slope

The recent report penned by some 22 experts from different countries was viewed as a major departure from the previous stand on CRISPR. Some ethicists viewed it a slippery slope.

In December 2015, the National Academy of Sciences, at the end of the gene-editing summit, endorsed for some basic research to proceed but put a brake on the use of genetically modified germline to establish pregnancy.

The latest report had taken a more open position provided that the interventions should meet several criteria which include the following: it should be proven safe, and it should be regulated to be used only to cure rare and serious illnesses.

"We're talking only about fixing diseases," MIT biologist Richard Hynes, one of the leaders of the new study, said.

Ethicists agree that therapeutic uses of the gene-editing tool are acceptable. It has, however, become a slippery slope when CRISPR is used for cosmetic changes. For example, the color of the eyes or desired athletic trait. The technique's potential use to make changes in sperm and eggs or embryo, which will be permanent and heritable by future generations, raises the fear of eugenic-driven human population.

Ethicists, one of them is Alta Charo, a professor of law and bioethics at the University of Wisconsin, protested saying the criteria along the slippery road is numerous.

Several studies conducted on the new technique are "not even close to the amount of research that we need before you can move forward," Charo said.

'What It Means To Be Human'

Jennifer Doudna, the scientist who helped developed the revolutionary gene-editing technique, pondered on the consequences of CRISPR.

Doudna raised the question of "What it means to be human" after her encounter with a mother whose son has Down syndrome.

"There's something about him that's so special. He's so loving in a way that's unique to him. I wouldn't change it," the mother told Doudna.

CRISPR, which stands for clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats, is not the first in DNA editing techniques.

Other techniques include Zinc Finger Nucleases (ZFNs), and Transcription activator-like effector nucleases (TALENs).

Much interest has been drawn by Doudna's CRISPR because it is easy, cost-effective, and efficient.

The technology is far from being perfect and questions are many. With its controversial potential uses in editing human genome, many ask: How far should science go in tinkering with human life?

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