Scientists all over the world have now used a tool called CRISPR-Cas9 to edit genes of human embryos. UK scientists just a few months ago were given the green light for the groundbreaking research into the early stages of human life.
The topic of editing genes has been explored in literature. American novelist and short story writer T. Coraghessan Boyle, in his story, Are We Not Men, has most of the characters – from animals to a young girl with an IQ of 162 who can run a hundred meters in 9.58 seconds – genetically modified. What sounds like science fiction is actually now happening.
Scientists have been using CRISPR (clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats) with the end in view of correcting mutations and preventing deadly diseases. For this reason, the CRISPR has been regarded as a miracle machine that could stave off sickle-cell anemia, Alzheimer’s Disease, and even cancer. Experiments have been done on genes of varied animal species.
The CRISPR-Cas9 System
Miracle machine or not, the CRISPR-Cas9 system has only recently been improved. It is the Cas9 which acts as a kind of scissors, snipping out unwanted DNA. Scientists have discovered a protein that prevents the CRISPR-Cas9 from snipping the wrong genes and introducing runaway genetic changes in the human genome or that of other species.
Chinese researchers have gone a step further by using CRISPR on human embryos, resulting in calls for a moratorium on its use on so-called germ-line cells, or those originating from human embryos, eggs or sperm. Last year, however, the United Kingdom’s Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA) set a precedent by permitting researcher Dr. Kathy Niakan to test the tool on viable human embryos at the Francis Crick Institute in London.
The CRISPR-Cas9 system was used to cut into the genetic code of embryos, isolating DNA parts and analyzing their contribution to the early growth and behavior of embryos. The embryos used were sourced from surplus embryos from In Vitro Fertilization (IVF) treatment that would have been destroyed – permission being granted first by women to allow said embryos to be used.
In T. Coraghessan Boyle’s story, the main protagonist does not want to bear a child with his wife, knowing she would want the child to be genetically modified. Whether we face it with hesitancy or embrace the changes it offers, gene-editing is in our midst and not just on the printed page.