Scientists have long been debating the ethics of using gene editing within a human embryo, or within sperm and egg cells to ensure that a child does not inherit devastating genetic diseases–and now the debate rages on about the new technique CRISPR/Cas9.
CRISPR/Cas9, scientists say can be used for a lot of good by helping couples have the healthy baby they have always dreamed of. But they, as well as ethicists, are still cautious of giving the technique a full “green light.” While it may have a positive impact on health, they are concerned that if it is approved for wider use, it would become acceptable to “enhance” a child’s cosmetic traits. As such, these alternations on an unborn child’s DNA could also alter human beings and their genetic make-up moving forward.
The National Academy of Science and the National Academy of Medicine explain what exactly CRISPR/Cas9 is in their February Report Highlights, which discusses the ethics of this issue in depth:
“CRISPR (clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats) is an acronym that refers to short, repeated segments of DNA that were originally discovered in bacteria. These segments provided the foundation for development of a system that, when paired with other components such as Cas9 (an RNA-guided enzyme that cuts DNA) can be readily programmed to edit specific segments of DNA. Together, CRISPR/Cas9 finds a specific segment of DNA and creates a double-stranded break; cellular DNA repair mechanisms are then used to inactivate or modify the genome in a targeted manner. CRISPR/ Cas9 is more efficient, less costly, and easier to use than earlier protein-guided gene editing strategies such as meganucleases, zinc finger nucleases, and TALENS.”
In December 2015, members of the National Academy of Science met to discuss whether or not this type of gene therapy would be appropriately applicable to humans. At that time, a consensus was reached that it would not be in the best interest of science or humans to use it.
Now, the committee has changed its tune, but only slightly. They feel that CRISPR/Cas9 can now be used, but only under very specific sets of circumstances and with strict supervision on the part of scientists carrying out the procedure.
Currently, restrictions are set in place for whether or not couples would be allowed to use the gene therapy. For example, they are not allowed to access it if they have a “reasonable alternative” such as IVF to select healthy embryos or prenatal testing for a disease. At the moment, it appears some of the only couples allowed to use such a gene therapy are those in which both parents have a rare disease or illness, and as such, their child would most likely develop it.
Still, this does not convince all scientists and ethicists. Some still believe that this is a slippery slope to modifying children’s physical traits for the parents’ benefit and that once approved, IVF clinics will begin to use the technique freely.