The Technology of CRISPR: Help or Harm

Lucian Cosson, Staff Writer

Although genetic modification has recently become a modern controversy, humans have been genetically altering organisms all throughout history. As far back as 32,000, years ago humans began genetically modifying wild wolves even without any knowledge of genetics. According to Harvard’s Science in the News, wild wolves joined groups of hunter gatherers and after domestication, the most docile wolves with the most ideal traits were selected for breeding. Generations later led that to the dogs we know today. This process of choosing organisms with the most ideal traits to breed is referred to as artificial selection or selective breeding. This process was also used in food to create many crops like corn, wheat, broccoli, bananas, and apples. This ancient process has proved extremely helpful and is still used today in genetic modification.

However, when genetic modification is brought up today most people think of possibly unsafe and unnatural modern developments. Freshman Ryan Marston notes that “a lot of people think that there is something inherently wrong with modifying genes but that has been done for millennia.” This is likely because of a major breakthrough in 1973, where two scientists created the first genetically engineered organism and cut out one gene from one organism and put it into another. This opened up the possibilities for genetic modification immensely but also attracted a lot of concern from the media and fellow scientists. Most of this newfound attention was skeptical scientists and reporters who just needed more evidence to be persuaded it was safe. These concerns were eventually dispelled after scientists, lawyers, and government officials came together to debate the safety of genetic engineering at the Asilomar conference in 1975. After three days, the conference concluded that genetic engineering experiments should be allowed to continue with specific guidelines. However, many of the concerns over genetic engineering remained that were in the general public, and opposition gradually grew to accept genetically modified foods throughout the early 2000’s. While today’s scientists have determined that genetic engineering is safe if done right and genetic modified foods are fine to eat, the field of genetic modification is about to enter into another unknown.

CRISPR technology has just recently gained attention in the last few years, and even more recently, has started being used successfully. CRISPR, which stands for clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats, involves directly editing DNA and allows for specific genes to be edited. CRISPR gene editing technology has been successfully used in experiments on food and even people. Scientists are hopeful for the future of gene editing technology and expect it to start taking off soon. Experts like Fyodor Urnov, a gene editing scientist at the Altius Institute for Biomedical Sciences in Seattle, told NPR , “2019 is the year when the training wheels come off and the world gets to see what CRISPR can really do for the world in the most positive sense.” Many scientists have hoped that CRISPR could be used to cure diseases and now, a U.S. CRISPR study that had been approved for cancer has finally started, and testing for genetic blood disorders like sickle cell disease is underway. While there are tremendous possibilities for this new technology CRISPR first has to prove itself to the world before it can be in widespread use.

Similar to genetically modified foods, most people have a natural negative reaction to gene editing on humans, and this opposition is especially strong when much about the technology is unknown. Senior Jacinthe Le explains his feelings about the new technology saying, “I’m not sure I would be very comfortable with what’s going to happen. Disease may spread and you don’t know what may happen. There will always be a side effect.” The biggest concern among scientists right now is that gene editing may cause unintended changes in DNA leading to health problems. There is also the possibility that DNA could be cut at a site other than the intended target, which could introduce unwanted mutations. After more tests are done with CRISPR and scientists learn more and become more comfortable with the procedure these short term effects will be minimized. However the only way to dispel the concerns about what CRISPR will cause in the long run is to wait until there has been enough time and enough data to properly determine the effects, if there are any. So while scientists will be able to safely dispel many of the concerns about the immediate effects of CRISPR, the long term effects will naturally take longer to understand and dispel.

While these experiments and studies on CRISPR are being conducted to determine the safety of the technology, it is important for the examiners not to feel pressured to get it approved right away. While the possibilities for what CRISPR could do are very exciting, it is more important that the process is evaluated properly than immediately being able to go into widespread use. As sophomore Lamir Magus points out in regards to genetically modified foods, “FDA testing has been extremely minimal, they rushed to set them as safe but in reality it needs decades for long term effects to be determined.” Thankfully, most of the scientific community is remaining very cautious in regards to CRISPR, but there have been a few exceptions that caused a lot of backlash. One such incident was in late 2018 when Chinese scientist He Jiankui, created the first genetically modified babies with CRISPR by editing the embryos of two twin girls to protect them against HIV. This experiment was immediately widely criticized by other researchers who believed more should be known before conducting such serious procedures. While Jiankui had positive intentions for the procedure, the procedure was rushed and he was later fired from the university he was working at.

Despite the challenges that CRISPR technology has to overcome before it is widely used CRISPR has already proved extremely helpful in various cases. The gene editing was successfully used to target the command center of cancer and was used to slow the growth of cancerous cells. Much of the current research with CRISPR is focused on cancer and two patients were confirmed by NPR to have been treated with the technique who had both previously relapsed undergoing standard treatment. In addition to cancer research, CRISPR has also been used with other diseases and scientists managed to use it to edit out Huntington’s disease in mice. The future of the technology is very exciting and the possibilities are vast, but the use of the technology should be kept within reason. Junior Madeline Louie notes that there should be limits placed on what gene editing is used for. For instance she believes that “things like aging should not be meddled with.” Fears of using gene editing to change the appearance of people are thankfully not realistic yet, but nonetheless could be possible as CRISPR advances, so limits should be placed to ensure its success.