TECH

Controversial Human Genome Editing Technology Faces Fresh Scrutiny At Global Summit

30/11/2015 11:58 GMT | Updated 18/12/2015 14:59 GMT

Imagine a world where we could edit out every incurable disease and ailment that stems from our genes.

This week, academics from the UK, China and US are meeting to discuss the genome-editing tool dubbed CRISPR–Cas9, that could make this dream a reality.

However, experts are aware that it is a double-edged sword, which if placed in the wrong hands, could wreak havoc.

dna

First, let us take a look at the one of the major benefits of CRISPR. It is the only weapon we have against faulty DNA.

Earlier this month, Molecular Therapy, published a study showing how this technique could provide a cure for facioscapulohumeral muscular dystrophy (FSHD) - a genetic disorder which weakens the muscles in the face, shoulder blades and upper arms, over time.

Keeping in mind that our genes are the body's instruction manual for making proteins, CRISPR's promise for FSHD is simple - silence a gene known as DUX 4 from coding for a toxic protein.

Lead author of the study, Charis Himeda, told the Huffington Post US: “I think progress for any disease is really progress for all diseases, because a lot of these therapies and technologies are going to turn out to be broadly applicable...”

However, CRISPR–Cas9 can also act like sharp pair of scissors fitted with a GPS-esque mechanism that expertly guides it to the right portion of DNA that needs to be chopped and changed.

It's this edge of the sword that has prompted a global summit.

In April, Chinese scientists caused a stir after announcing they had edited human embryos - albeit they used embryos that could not result in a live birth.

While their immediate goal was to modify a gene for a potentially fatal blood disorder known as β-thalassaemia, some argued that such changes could risk altering the physical traits of future generations.

Another worry focuses on how CRISPR–Cas9 increases everyone's access to modifying DNA. This poses dangerous possibilities for what could happen if the technology gets into the wrong hands.

However, some argue that the gains to be made from this editing tool far outweigh the negative consequences.

In May, Nature asked a team of 50 researchers, business leaders and ethicists to comment on how societal risks versus the benefits.

Bioethics expert, Jonathan Moreno, said:

"Perhaps the obvious health benefits for future persons are evident, as well as possible savings for healthcare systems for chronic conditions and disabling conditions (although presumably everyone will always die of something so those savings might be short-term).

"There is also a prospect of 'consumer eugenics' - eugenics driven by parental choice rather than by state order, which could have similar results to traditional eugenics such as a multitiered social system based on certain enhancements."

The medical community hope this week's global summit will produce a few more guidelines on getting the balance right.

What they are all agreed on however, is that it is time to have serious conversation about how we handle this double-edged sword.