CRISPR (Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats) is a revolutionary genome editing technology that has the potential to change the world. This powerful tool allows researchers to make precise changes to DNA sequences, opening up new possibilities for curing genetic diseases, enhancing health and longevity, and creating new possibilities for human enhancement. However, the use of CRISPR also raises serious ethical questions and challenges that must be addressed.
Benefits of CRISPR
One of the main benefits of CRISPR is its potential to cure genetic diseases. By using CRISPR to edit specific genes, researchers can correct mutations that cause diseases such as cystic fibrosis, sickle cell anemia, and Huntington’s disease.
Curing Genetic Diseases
These diseases are caused by single-gene defects that can be easily targeted and fixed by CRISPR. In 2016, the first clinical trial using CRISPR was approved by a panel from the US National Institutes of Health (NIH) (Reardon, 2016). The trial, led by Dr. Edward Stadtmauer at the University of Pennsylvania, aimed to use CRISPR to augment cancer therapies that rely on a patient’s T cells. T cells are a type of immune cell that can recognize and kill cancer cells. By using CRISPR to edit the genes of T cells, researchers hope to enhance their ability to fight cancer (Reardon, 2016).
CRISPR also has enormous potential in agriculture. By using CRISPR to edit plant genomes, researchers can create crops that are more resistant to pests and diseases, require less water and fertilizer, and have higher yields. This could help to address global food security challenges and reduce the environmental impact of agriculture. For example, researchers have used CRISPR to create rice plants that can survive drought and salt stress (Zhang et al., 2017). They have also used CRISPR to create wheat plants that are resistant to fungal diseases (Wang et al., 2018). These crops could improve food production and quality in regions where water and land resources are scarce or polluted.
Risks of CRISPR
However, the use of CRISPR also raises serious ethical questions and challenges.
One of the main concerns is the potential for off-target effects. When using CRISPR to edit a specific gene, there is a risk that other genes may be unintentionally edited as well. This could have unintended consequences for the individual or organism being edited. For example, off-target effects could cause unwanted mutations or diseases in humans or animals (Liang et al., 2015). They could also disrupt the ecological balance or biodiversity in plants or microorganisms (Baltimore et al., 2015).
Loss of Genetic Diversity
Another concern is the potential loss of genetic diversity. If CRISPR is used to create “designer babies” with specific traits, this could lead to a reduction in genetic diversity within populations. This could have negative consequences for human health and evolution. Genetic diversity is important for maintaining the adaptability and resilience of populations to changing environments and diseases (Baltimore et al., 2015). It also reflects the richness and uniqueness of human cultures and identities.
Violation of Human Dignity
There are also concerns about the potential violation of human dignity. If CRISPR is used for non-therapeutic purposes, such as enhancing intelligence or physical abilities, this could be seen as violating the inherent dignity of human beings. Human dignity is a fundamental value that recognizes the worth and respect of every human being regardless of their abilities or characteristics. It also implies a sense of responsibility and solidarity among humans to protect and promote their well-being and rights.
Challenges of CRISPR
In addition to these concerns, there are also broader ethical questions about the responsible development and use of CRISPR technology.
Informed consent is a key principle in biomedical research that ensures that participants are fully informed about the purpose, methods, risks, benefits, and alternatives of a research study before they agree to participate. However, informed consent may be difficult or impossible to obtain when using CRISPR for germline genome editing in human embryos. Germline genome editing involves editing the genes of reproductive cells or embryos that will be passed on to future generations1. This raises questions about who has the authority and responsibility to consent for the future offspring who will inherit the edited genes (Baltimore et al., 2015).
Safety and Efficacy
Safety and efficacy are also important criteria for evaluating any medical intervention. However, safety and efficacy may be uncertain or variable when using CRISPR for gene editing in humans or animals. There may be unforeseen or long-term effects of gene editing that are not detected by current methods or standards. There may also be differences in the response or outcome of gene editing depending on the individual or organism being edited. For example, some people may have different genetic backgrounds or immune systems that may affect the efficiency or accuracy of CRISPR (Liang et al., 2015).
Fair Distribution of Research Benefits and Burdens
Fair distribution of research benefits and burdens is another ethical issue that concerns the allocation of resources and opportunities for research participation and access. There may be inequalities or injustices in the distribution of research benefits and burdens among different groups or individuals based on their social, economic, or geographic status. For example, some groups or individuals may have more access to CRISPR technology or its applications than others due to their wealth, power, or location. This could create or exacerbate disparities in health, education, or quality of life among different populations.
The ownership of CRISPR technology is also a subject of ongoing debate and legal battles. According to an article by Dermot Martin (2016), the ownership of CRISPR is currently being disputed between the University of California and the Broad Institute. The University of California claims that it was the first to invent CRISPR as a genome editing tool, while the Broad Institute claims that it was the first to apply CRISPR to edit mammalian cells. The outcome of this dispute could have significant implications for the patent rights, royalties, and control of CRISPR technology and its applications.
To address these ethical challenges, it is important for researchers, policy makers, and society at large to engage in open and transparent dialogue about the potential benefits and risks of using CRISPR technology. This will require ongoing education and public engagement on the ethical implications and social impact of genome editing. It will also require a collaborative and interdisciplinary approach that involves multiple stakeholders and perspectives from science, ethics, law, and society (Baltimore et al., 2015).
In conclusion, CRISPR is a powerful technology that has enormous potential to change the world. However, its development and use must be guided by ethical principles to ensure that it is used for the benefit of all. By engaging in open dialogue about the benefits, risks, and challenges of using CRISPR technology, we can ensure that this cutting-edge tool is used responsibly for the good of humanity.
Baltimore, D., Berg, P., Botchan, M., Carroll, D., Charo, R. A., Church, G., … & Jaenisch, R. (2015). A prudent path forward for genomic engineering and germline gene modification. Science, 348(6230), 36-38.
Wang W., Pan Q., He F., Akhunova A., Chao S., Trick H.N., Akhunov E.(2018). Transgenerational CRISPR-Cas9 activity facilitates multiplex gene editing in allopolyploid wheat. CRISPR Journal 1(1):65–74.
Zhang H., Zhang J., Wei P., Zhang B., Gou F., Feng Z., Mao Y., Yang L., Zhang H., Xu N.(2017). The CRISPR/Cas9 system produces specific and homozygous targeted gene editing in rice in one generation. Plant Biotechnology Journal 12(6):797–80